The Parable of The Prick and The Scum Bag

Jesus didn’t like everybody.  The man so often equated with peace and love got annoyed with people.  He famously chased a gaggle of businessmen out of the Jerusalem temple.  He compared pharisaic lawyers to a den of poisonous snakes.  On more than a few occasions, he described his own disciples as dim-witted.  And to the pricks among his listeners, the ones who regarded themselves as better than others, he told the following story.

Two men went up to the temple to pray.  One was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector.  One prayed in the temple on a regular basis; the other rarely showed his face.  One was recognized for his dedication and fervor; one was hated for his dishonesty and greed.  One left the temple in God’s good graces; one did not.

Pharisees were the Southern Baptists of their day.  They insisted on a strict interpretation of the Torah, and believed devotion meant obedience to God.  In their minds, a Jew who failed to obey the laws of God hardly deserved to be called a Jew, and, unfortunately, there were a lot of them.  The troubles afflicting the nation, occupied by Rome, burdened with heavy taxes collected by the ilk of that guy standing in back, were because people didn’t do as God commanded.

Showing up for daily prayer was one of the signs of devotion, and our Pharisee was there.  He fulfilled his duties, and wished he could say the same for everyone else.  There were too many backsliders, too much apathy, too great a tolerance for looseness.  At least he could be an example for others, who would do well to be like him.  The messiah wasn’t about to show up until more Jews did the same.

When the Pharisee lifted his eyes and hands towards heaven, he said this prayer to himself.  “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men.  Most men are greedy, unjust, sex-obsessed, and always out for themselves.  I especially thank you that I am not like that tax collector standing behind me.  I say my prayers.  I fast twice a week.  And I give the temple ten percent of all I get.”

The man standing toward the back had never given the temple ten percent of his earnings.  He was not part of regular society.  To other people, he was an extortionist and traitor.  This man collected tolls, which meant he stopped anyone transporting goods and demanded a tax, with the Roman army providing muscle.  After paying his required allotment to Rome, the collector kept what remained, most of it taken from neighbors.  In the Roman Empire, taxes were collected on a concessionary basis.

A tax man was affluent and possessed a very small circle of friends.  He undoubtedly watched others in the community go hungry, while dining on lamb confiscated earlier in the day.  He took along an escort of Romans, who helped themselves to what they could find, whatever it might be, as part of the collection process.  Human suffering was connected directly to him, and he did it for money.  The only reason he’s praying unmolested in the temple is because killing a tax collector would get a person crucified, along with the rest of the family.

This man was a scum bag.  The Pharisee may have been a prick, but he didn’t steal from his neighbors.  But there the scum bag awkwardly stood, in the temple, towards the back, not daring to lift his eyes toward heaven.  Instead, he beat his breast and prayed.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

He was also the man, Jesus said, who went home justified in the sight of God.  The Pharisee did not.  The fervent prick did not receive God’s forgiveness for being a prick.  He didn’t even recognize his condition, which is requirement number one.  The second is to admit it.  The tax collector, by contrast, appeared to recognize his identity as a scum bag, and went through the pain of being honest.  New directions come from such admissions, and are honored by the Creator.

Living in a society where people insist on being the right ones, the good ones, the exceptional ones, the ones God likes best, this parable is one we all need to hear.  Arrogance is a fatal disease.  If you can’t admit to faults, you are guaranteed to fail.  Life is best lived with a keen awareness for the paucity of our knowledge, the complexity of our motives, the debt we owe to others, and the ties we possess as humans.

The world would be nicer without scum bags and pricks.  Perhaps that’s possible if we each look after ourselves.  And honesty is where it begins.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

4 Responses to “The Parable of The Prick and The Scum Bag”

  1. Perceptions shifts outside of the box!

  2. And it’s hard to get people outside the box.

  3. Brenda Kirkland Reply July 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    You freakin’ make my day!

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  1. song video: “a sinner’s prayer” « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci - July 3, 2012

    […] The Parable of The Prick and The Scum Bag (21st-century-faith.com) […]

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