Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector ~ Names Matter

Here is a fresco depicting last Sunday's Gospel: the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee has the bible scrolls right at hand while reminding God of his spiritual success. A great fish in the lower right corner opens its mouth wide to swallow him up for his presumption. 

Behind him, the Tax Collector has just stumbled in with his money bag hanging off his belt. He carries a weapon into God's house: not cool. Above them both the painter has added his own detail - an angel weeping, so grieved by the Pharisee's pious show. Here's the text of  Jesus' Gospel Parable, followed by some homily thoughts.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.'
   "But the tax collector, standing far off, wold not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'
   "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."  Luke 18:9-14

Good teacher that he is, Jesus is the master of stories that tell us how it is with God and God's rule. The stories usually employ things from everyday life with which people would be familiar: seed, sheep, coins, different kinds of ground, pearls and treasure. Jesus' stories also reveal that he had keen insights into what makes human beings tick. And so this parable is simply about two men. We don't have to figure out the meaning of the story; we're told at the end: "...for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles humbles himself will be exalted."

But I'd suggest there is something to this story that is even more fundamental. The guy up front doesn't even know the fellow in the back. Maybe he's seen him at the tax office, but in his pious prayer he refers to the man as "this" - "this tax collector." 

This reference with no name lays out that there is a great human divide. And this attitude of division trips off his tongue. It's acceptable to him: "This one," "That one," "Them." 

Some months ago there was a picture from Syria of a five year old boy, shell shocked, bleeding and covered with dust, after his home was bombed. We see him stunned and sitting in the back of the ambulance. And as attention getting as the picture was already, when the news media revealed some days later that the boy's name is Omran Dagneesh, the photo became even more upsetting, more urgent,  troubling and personal.

Omran Dagneesh

When I was a young priest I was told by parishioners there was a man living in the woods under some boards and branches. When I asked the pastor if we could house him for the winter in our empty convent of twenty bedrooms, he said, "No, there are insurance issues."

I don't doubt there were insurance issues, but we should have sought out the man anyway, and at least learned his name and heard his story to see what we might do for him, if not house him. Emphasis on learn his name.

I'm thinking of a twenty year old young man who when he re-located to his college-town started going to daily Mass each morning in the nearby cathedral. After a year he told me, "No one ever came near me to say hello or to ask for my name." But we might well imagine a group on the church steps afterwards talking about "that boy who comes to Mass everyday."

At the heart of our religion is name. God says, "I have called you by name; you are mine." Isaiah 43:1 And in another place: "God knows the number of the stars and calls each one by name." Isaiah 40:26 And if God can name each of the stars, how much more surely God knows my name; your name.

David is a flight steward who says that even though he wears a name tag no ever uses his name - indeed, the folks boarding don't even return his greeting. Using someone's name suggests we know we're all on common ground.

We'll likely all be in a store or restaurant this week and the cashier or server will be wearing a name tag. Maybe we could surprise that person by using his/her name at some point. There is a Gospel precedent you know: "Zacchaeus, come down out of that tree; I mean to have dinner at your house tonight." Luke 19:5


  1. I remember this Gospel from last week, but the lesson I take away from it today is much more powerful and meaningful than what I walked away with on Sunday. Thank you for always putting a new spin on things.

  2. Thanks so much for your work here. I truly love (and miss) your homilies!! You always help me keep life in perspective.

  3. And I thank YOU - for listening, for caring, for taking it seriously.

  4. I believe that using one's name gives a sense of familiarity. That one knows someone and recognizes them. For instance, in school, when the teacher calls a child by name for the first time, their face lights up because they are now known to someone new. But I feel awkward to use someone's name just because they are wearing a name tag. I see that as a way to identify someone, but I don't know them. Therefore, I wouldn't think to address a flight attendant by their name, nor a cashier in the store. Not as a matter of not caring, but rather as a sign of respect. But I think if I saw a young man at church week after week, I would take the time to talk to him and get to know him by name. It all has to be in perspective.