The Pharisee and the Tax Collector on Stewardship

Stewardship Witness by Bernard Koontz

Good Morning St Therese. My name is Bernard Koontz, I’m a regular at the 8:30 mass, and it’s a pleasure to join you here today.

I’m here to talk about the gospel and stewardship today, which I understand as the active choice of using my time, treasure, and talent to care for creation - here in our church, in our families, in our community and beyond. In the next few minutes, I’m going to share with you how today’s gospel guides me to reflect on this active role of a steward.

In the gospel we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. To understand this parable, I close my eyes imagine being in the temple area. I picture stone walls and benches; I see rays of sunlight coming through an opening. I smell wood fires for cooking. I hear footsteps and notice animal sounds in the distance. I watch people passing by, outside the temple, people coming in and people going out.

Amongst those people, I know there is tension. With Roman occupation, the people of Israel responded in different ways. Some made their defense Jewish customs and ways very public. Others, in order to make a living, cooperated with the Romans. In my imagination, I look across the temple, and see this very real political tension play out as the gospel tells us that the Pharisee takes up “his position” to pray. Then I see the tax collector, “off in the distance, “not even raising his eyes.” I notice and appreciate the difference between the two, and I wonder what I have to learn from both of them, and the from tension between them.

To do this, I return then to the words of the Gospel, where Luke tells us that “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” These opening positions me to think about myself as the Pharisee, and specifically to ask the question -- are there times that I show up in temple to tell God about all the good things I’m doing. That’s not an easy question to ask myself, and even harder one to answer. I’ll share a few examples with you.

When I think about myself in our parish community, we know that the need to care for all that God has given us is great. The financial news we heard recently is serious and can feel overwhelming. One response I can choose is to say, “I’m already doing so much for the
church. I work as a catechist, I give monthly, and I just started helping with the shelter.” In choosing this response, I am like the Pharisee, thinking about stewardship as a list of obligations to check off. This response is tied up in what I have done in the past and defending my choices and actions. I miss the opportunity prayerfully ask what else I might be doing, and how I can freely give back what God has given to me. Because I am too busy listing what I have done, I miss the opportunity to listen to God and identify and act on other ways I can actively steward creation.

Beyond our church, I think about other ways I carry the responsibility of a steward -- within my family, in my employment, and the neighborhood I live in. In those settings, I have to ask myself -- when and how might I be acting like the Pharisee. When do I get too busy naming things I do well, and what am I missing because I’m not asking what else I could do with my time, talent and treasure.

To go deeper with this parable, I step back into the gospel. The opening we hear, ““Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else,” focuses our attention on the Pharisee. However, there are two characters in the parable -- the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and I’ve found that with nearly all scripture, I can learn more when I look at it from more than one perspective.

Moving back into to the temple, I see the stone walls again, hear the sounds, and shift my gaze to the tax collector, standing off at a distance. I consider what I know about tax collectors. Historically we know that tax collectors were despised -- they were seen as traitors serving the Roman occupation and suspected of extortion or worse. Yet I see him in the temple, despite the very likely fact that he knew the Pharisee and others were judging him. In deference with his head down, he simply prays, “'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” There is no list of what he has done, no justification of his actions. He comes with humility, and with faith that God will have mercy on him, and in the stillness open to hear God’s voice. Then the gospel tells us that “ one who humbles himself will be exalted.” What does being exalted look like? As I watch the tax collector, what would I see?

I’m not sure what being exalted would look like. But I’ll share one way I can imagine. With his eyes cast down and shoulders rolled forward, the tax collector humbles himself, creating that quiet space where he can listen to God’s voice. He feels God’s love wrap around him and the tension I sensed before lifts like mist clearing. As he listens to God, I watch him stand a little taller, his shoulders roll back, and his head tilt up. Perhaps he feels inspired to help a neighbor, share a meal, or give away a few extra coins. A trace of a smile crosses his face. He leaves the temple, filled with the affirmation of God’s love, and charged with the purpose of a steward.

Standing in the temple, and watching him walk away, I ask what I have to learn from him. He is man exalted, transformed by humility and prayer. So in watching the tax collector, I hear an invitation to humbly pray -- not telling God what I’ve done, but rather listening. And in that listening, I know that I will hear opportunities to actively engage in my role as a steward, trusting God to guide me in how to use my time, talent and treasure to care for creation and build the Kingdom.

At the same time, I notice the Pharisee is still there, reminding me of the danger of congratulating myself for what I do. So, together, the Pharisee and the tax collector help me reflect on my role as a steward -- avoiding listing what I’ve done and humbling myself to listen to God. So. as I conclude this reflection, I pray for all of us to find the humility and quiet space to hear God’s call to us as stewards.


Stewardship Corner

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