Pharisee and tax collector: fat cats and thin cats


Scripture: Luke 18: 9-14 

Pharisees and tax collectors were at opposite ends of society in Jesus’ day: examples of fat cats and thin cats.  The story has much relevance for today, when we consider social unrest around the world. 

In today’s Gospel, a Pharisee and a tax collector are praying in the Temple. The Pharisee offers thanks to God, but it is not really thanks for all his blessings. He really wants to tell God what a fine fellow he is, not like that rotten tax collector. “Look at me: I fast twice a week and give a tenth of my income to the Temple.” But fasting was only what he was supposed to do.  His donation to the Temple was similar.  It was the tithe that I spoke about at Thanksgiving. Jewish belief was that God, who has blessed us abundantly, should get the first pick of everything. It was called first fruits. In modern language, Jesus wasn’t talking about what’s left over after we have paid the rent or the mortgage, been to the shopping mall, and visited the beer store.

One of the justifications for using PAP (the Pre Authorized Payment) scheme for your donations to the church is that the money comes out of your bank account as a kind of first fruits. However, I have to admit that what works better for me is the discipline of writing my cheque each Sunday morning – otherwise I would probably never think about it again once I’d set up the PAP!

The tax collector is the opposite of the Pharisee

Jesus depicts the tax collector grovelling before God because of his unworthiness. He knew that he cheated people when he extorted more than the taxes they owed. So he asked God to have mercy on him. The moral of Jesus’ story seems obvious. The Pharisee is full of himself; he is a modern individualist. The tax collector acknowledges his sinfulness.

But yet …. The Pharisee was righteous. He really did follow the Law of Moses. His problem was that he was completely dismissive of other people. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like these other people …”. His prayer was really all about himself. But the same thing was true of the tax collector. He asked God to be merciful to him.  But he did not say that he would change his ways. So his prayer was also really all about himself. Recall the words of exhortation to Confession in the old prayer book: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with you neighbours, and intend to lead the new life …” Neither person in the story seemed to have any enthusiasm for leading a new and different life.

Why do we need to have Confession?

Each week, we offer a prayer of confession or reconciliation during our service here at St George’s. Some people say that we don’t need to have a Confession every single week. After all, we’re not really that bad. But that would miss the point. That is exactly where the Pharisee found himself. “I’m not a bad sort,” he says; “I give my tithe, and I fast when the priest says I should, so I don’t really have anything to confess. I’ve kept the Commandments – no stealing, no adultery, no murder etc.” But our prayer of Confession this week reminds about what probably look to us like small things – forgetting the needy, the lonely, and people different from ourselves.

Rioting in Chile: rich men and tax collectors; fat cats and thin cats

photo from Globe and Mail

Last weekend, while Charles was staying with us, there was very disturbing news from Santiago, Chile, where he and his family live. A protest about rising transit fares escalated into full-blown riots. The rioters burned and looted stores and office buildings. Eleven people died. There were army units at a shopping mall a couple of miles from their home. The government imposed a curfew, but within a day the unrest had spread to the whole country through social media. As in Hong Kong these last few months, a protest about a specific grievance led the way to much wider issues. In Chile, that issue is increasing inequality between the ‘haves and have-nots’ in society: the fat cats and thin cats.

Economists use a measure called the GINI coefficient to measure relative inequality between the rich and the poor within a particular country. It doesn’t say whether the country concerned is rich or poor in an absolute sense. The value 1 would mean complete inequality (one person owns everything); 0 would represent complete equality. The most unequal country is South Africa (0.63). Iceland (0.25) is the least unequal. Canada and the UK are both 0.34, USA 0.41, and Chile and Mexico both 0.48. Yet Chile is the most “prosperous” country in South America – a model, so-called, for the rest of the continent.

The GINI coefficient is a very rough measure. But one can imagine how great inequality might link to great anger. Once people start to protest about a given issue, that can spill over to broader grievances. That made me think about just how fragile is the veneer of democracy in our Western societies.

Populism, fat cats and thin cats

We have heard a lot in recent months that populism in the western world is the result of those who feel left behind by globalization rising up against so-called elites. I’d like to put it slightly differently in terms of “fat cats” confronted by “thin cats”. Populism isn’t only an anti-elitist movement.  It includes the feelings of those at the margins of society. Scripture calls them the poor and oppressed.

Over the weekend, we had a discussion about this, as we watched videos about the mayhem in Chile. Why, for example, is so little housing being built for low-income people? In the years after WW II, this was done in many countries. Some plans did not work out well, and became places of urban blight.  But the original intentions were good.  Examples include Regent Park in Toronto in 1948, the same era as “the projects” in American cities such as Chicago, and “council housing’ in the UK.

Why is that not possible today?

Perhaps it’s because immediately after WW II, people were used to war-time measures, when governments simply decided what needed to be done in society. Acceptance carried over into the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. However, to achieve goals like social housing, taxes were high.

Today, things are different. We live in an era of individualism rather than community spirit. NIMBYism stands in the way of almost any initiative. People distrust government. It is also an era when there is a constant clamour for lower taxes. I do not see willingness to pay for large investments in social housing (for example). We have just endured a federal election that saw meanness between political leaders, coupled with promises to do well by those who are already “medium cats” , many of whom own houses and drive SUVs. Most of us here this morning are “medium cats” – sleek but not actually fat.  We are truly fortunate that so far that Canada’s “thin cats” have, like Lazarus, accepted their lot at the rich man’s gate.

Soaking the rich, the very fat cats

We heard a lot about “soaking the rich”, the very fat cats.  Their wealth would apparently pay for lower taxes and other goodies for the rest of us. But as I looked at political promises, it seemed that the main beneficiaries wouldn’t be the thinnest cats with mangy coats (the very poor).  Most of the benefits would go to the medium cats.  The people that politicians call ” the middle class and those striving to join them”.

Would we, the medium cats, accept higher taxes for the betterment of society?

I wonder how much of an increase in taxation we “medium cats” would truly accept to make the lives of the “thin cats” easier. Canada’s thin cats include our inner city poor, our First Nations. I believe that our society can have almost whatever it wants. Provided, that is, that we are willing to pay for it.  Yet all we heard about in the election was the idea of soaking the fat cats. But there are too few of them to pay for all the promises. Much of the burden would have to fall on the medium cats, or by more borrowing.

Retelling Jesus’ parable

A “medium cat” and a “thin cat” went to church to pray. The medium cat stood proudly by himself. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like criminals, cheats, or even this refugee. I come to church every week. I help with parish activities, and always pay my taxes on time.” The refugee did not even lift his head, but sat in a corner. He said, “God, I thank you for the little I have received. But be merciful to me and help me feed and house my family.” I tell you, this man went home justified rather than the other. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.