Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, a parable Jesus addresses “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”
When we hear this parable, we tend to be critical of the prayer of the Pharisee. But consider a different perspective, this by Amy-Jill Levine. She write
First, the Pharisee thanks God for his state and thus shows his dependence. As for being an autonomous agent of moral virtue, Pharisees did believe in a combination of fate and free will. To some extent, his moral stance is of his own doing; he resisted temptation; he chose to follow Torah. At least the first part of the prayer is perfectly fine, for it is another way of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
As I read that, I thought, that is no different from how we approach things: we are each given gifts, but we have a choice how to use them. We are given law by God, but it is up to us to follow that law or not. We are beings constantly called by God, but we do have free will.
Levine admits that the prayer if the Pharisee (“I am not like this tax collector…”) does set up distinctions, but she suggests those distinctions are not about self-importance, but about gratitude. “It is God who provided the supplicant with the opportunity to study rather than have to work to earn money. It is God who allows the supplicant to see what is truly important.”
You may not agree with Levine’s interpretation, but what I find helpful in reading her is the reminder that there is more than one way to read parables, and we need to think hard before jumping to easy conclusions about them.