The Publican, the Quarisee, and Christ


During worship at Little Falls Meeting, I rose and said,

I hope you’ll forgive me if this is too bold. Using a story told by Jesus, I’m about to make a riddle that’s no joke. Here’s the story.

Two guys walk into a house of worship, one after the other. The first, a man whose job makes him complicit in state oppression, stops just by the door. He hangs his head, beats his breast, and sincerely acknowledges before God that he is a wicked person and very much in need of mercy. The second guy walks in, looks the first fellow over, and then continues to the front. There, he expresses his sincere gratitude to God that he has been blessed with right religion: what good people should do, he does; what good people should not do, he does not. He’s thankful that he’s not like the guy in the back.

My riddle is not about which one Jesus approves. As you already know if you’ve read the story in the Bible, Jesus says that God accepts the guy in the back and rejects the other one. My riddle is this: which one is the Quaker?

After worship, a Friend said to me: “My answer is: neither.” As I thought about that, I realized that I had been thinking of the question as being of the “either-or” sort: do we Quakers tend to be more like the first man – the publican, as Jesus told it – or the second – the Pharisee? But the story has three important characters, not two: I, at least, had excluded the narrator.

When Jesus is included, the story deepens. It speaks to me now of a complex, but perhaps not uncommon, Quaker conversion process. Let’s say that a person begins as something like a publican. As the Light of agapē-love shines on her life, she becomes aware that she is complicit in an oppressive and violent social, economic, and political system. Thus “convicted” by the Light, she repents and becomes a Quaker, publicly affirming Friends’ religious ideals of peace, equality, and integrity. Now she can feel that she is no longer complicit; her Quaker values and practices lift her above the warmongers and other less enlightened, less virtuous, people.

As we’ve seen, Jesus would have preferred that she remain at the honest publican’s level. But she has found a way to save herself. She has become what I’ll call a Quarisee — a Quaker-Pharisee.

In the Christian scriptures, “Pharisee” refers to a member of a religious group. The Pharisee publicly lives a spiritual life. He is committed to discerning and doing the right thing; he tries hard to know and follow the will of God, and he encourages others to do likewise. And he is, if more or less subconsciously, proud of himself for being a decent person. He doesn’t see that he continues to serve an unjust and violent system. As a member of organized religion, even if one that protests against unrighteousness, he helps maintain the status quo. Protected by state power, profiting from an unjust economy, he lives well while the poor starve. Meanwhile, he looks down on those whose values, he feels, are not as noble as his, or whose actions offend his (ultimately self-serving) sense of what’s right.

That is what our protagonist has become. After the good start of responding to the Light’s illumination of her situation, she has fallen into the insidious sin of self-satisfaction. If, as our tradition teaches, the first function of the Light is to convict us of the moral failure of selfishness, to reveal us to ourselves as we really are in relation to justice, peace, and mercy, then when we no longer see that selfishness — regardless of what we tell ourselves, regardless of what our Quaker community might affirm for us — we have turned away from the Light. And that, although she does not realize it, is what she has done, almost from the outset. She sees now, not herself, but what she believes herself to be.

If our new Friend abides at the Quarisee stage, which is the natural thing to do, then she gives her life over to hypocrisy. But there is, as the Little Falls Friend reminded me, another possibility, one which opens for us when we remember to include Jesus the Christ in our story. For, as we learn from the first Friends, the vocation of a Quaker is to be, like Jesus, the body of Christ in this world.

In the Bible story, it is Jesus, the Light enfleshed, who, free of the sin of both publican and Pharisee, can examine their situations from a critical yet compassionate perspective. Seeing the complicity of the hapless publican and the hypocrisy of the satisfied Pharisee, he pronounces judgment: God accepts the authenticity of the sinner who knows what he is, for such a person at least acknowledges what the Light reveals. But God rejects the complacency of the self-consciously spiritual person, because it is a result — and this would be especially ironic for a Quaker — of his failure to appraise himself and his life honestly and continuously in the Light.

This says to our Quarisee that if she can open her present condition to the Light’s critical searching, accept the continuing revelation that evil lives disguised as goodness in her heart, and allow the Light to lead her back into repentance, she can begin again. This time, however, alert to the allure of self-righteousness, she may learn from the example of Jesus that it’s not about her and her moral status but about the plight of the world and the individual beings in the world. This time, she may be able to go out of herself and enter into real relationship with others, responding not to her own beliefs and values but to the others’ suffering and need. This time, she may give up the project of making herself good and accept the call to be the body of Christ, broken for love of the world.

NOTES for The Publican, the Quarisee, and Christ:

  • As a noun, “riddle” can signify not only a puzzle or conundrum but also a sieve (useful, for example, for separating gold from mud). As a verb, it can refer to the posing of a puzzle but also to acts of sifting and of poking holes in something — or, in a twist not untypical of English, of filling something, usually with an unwanted substance. All of those meanings are harbored in my use of the word here.
  • The story of the publican (tax collector) and the Pharisee is from Luke 18:9-14.
  • The illustration at the top of this post is from a woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). Holbein has placed the story in his own time, depicting the Pharisee as a Franciscan friar; that is, as a contemporary person who is publicly committed to a spiritual community which celebrates virtues like simplicity and peace while its members live in relative security and comfort, protected by official force and subsidized by the sacrifices of the poor and donations from the wealthy that are tainted by greed, oppression, and violence.
  • With regard to the final statement in this post: if the invitation to “be the body of Christ” seems to sneak egotism and self-righteousness back in, please note that Christ is archetypically the self-transcending one who would suffer and die for love of human beings, which is why his body is broken. Recall, too, Mark 10:18, in which Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good but God.”

6 thoughts on “The Publican, the Quarisee, and Christ

  1. George
    I wrestle with, and more often find ways of not wrestling with, all you describe and more. This piece seems rather ‘out there’ for me.
    What do you wrestle with?

    • Thanks for commenting, John. I don’t know what to make of “out there” (you’re welcome to elaborate if you like), but I can say that I write in various modes here, and that some posts address my own struggles — e.g., with the knowledge of death, with personal moral failure, etc. — more directly than others. Although this current post is not written in the first person, what you see here reflects in some measure my struggle with the kind of spirituality described.

  2. George
    (You may prefer to respond to this outside your published blog, and maybe not include this in that. I leave that to you.)
    By ‘out there’ I mean distant, remote, abstract. For me, the lack of any personal push – in or behind your piece of ministry and subsequent discussion – engaged my mind, but not my emotions. It just didn’t connect with me, until perhaps your last few sentences.
    When that engagement of mind happens to me I tend to think about what I’m hearing or reading.
    I wonder if you would like to ponder on
    1. Whether the Friend who said ‘neither’ might have been saying something similar to me,or may have been suggesting that the problem you described didn’t fit their picture of Quakers.
    2. Are you saying, in your footnote on ‘riddle’, that your hearers would have been (better) able to understand your ministry if they each had a good quality dictionary to hand and knew which entry to consult? The meeting houses I know (in the UK) usually only have our book of discipline, the Advices and Queries from that, and the Bible – not a good dictionary such as Oxford Concise or Chambers or Websters.
    3. Your Holbein illustration. The kneeling figure has a tonsure. So he has to be a monk. A bit of fact-checking on Google shows that this was one of a number of small woodcuts, all with monks in them, made by Holbein in the mid- late 1530s, though not published until the late 1540s. These were probably produced by Holbein, as part of government propaganda, to ridicule monks and monasteries when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were pushing ahead with their highly unpopular dissolution of the monasteries.
    John N

    • Thanks for elaborating. As I noted in the first response, I write in different modes, and I don’t expect that every post will engage every reader. I’ll address your three numbered points in sequence.

      1. When asked later, the Friend who had said “neither” didn’t remember what she’d had in mind; I’m hoping that this post will refresh her memory. (We hadn’t time to discuss her comment in person because of the morning’s schedule.) In any case, that particular message was not intended to elicit agreement or disagreement, but to invite people to think critically.

      2. The note on “riddle” is for readers here — as the note itself says. I think it is possible that some of the original message’s hearers may have, if subconsciously, made other connections beside the obvious one, but I’m confident that their doing so wasn’t required for the ministry to speak to them.

      3. There is also a note about the Holbein illustration, which mentions that the “Pharisee” is a Franciscan friar (technically speaking, by the way, not a monk) and which explicitly recognizes the woodcut’s polemical design.

  3. Interesting. Sociologist and sometime theologian Peter Berger (who describes himself as theologically liberal but politically conservative [although I would say he’s conservative in a way tempered by a West European ethos that privileges certain humanizing and humane values]) agrees with you that when your objective is loving your neighbor (and that is an objective which he considers central to a Christian ethic) to focus on purity of the self is morally irresponsible; but the conclusions he draws about what exactly that means are very different from yours, because his understanding is a conservative one, and so he does not support the kind of broadly critical approach to the status quo that you do because he believes that such an approach in fact does not meet the objective of loving the neighbor, specifically, he does not believe it helps the world’s poor.

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