Can you see them; the pharisee and the tax collector? Their posture, their prayer? Are they familiar at all? Luke calls this a parable but it seems so true to life. There are no extended metaphors to work out, no women with coins, no lamps and bushel baskets, no sheep and goats, not a lot to decipher.
The temple, the pharisee, the tax collector. It has the ring of truth and experience because these are the actual cast of characters that Jesus spent time with and among whom all the other parables were told. I can imagine the real life conversations between Jesus, the pharisee, and the tax collector; the inner dispositions they reveal.
The pharisee, confident in his religion. Firm in conviction, and diligent in observing the law. “Jesus, can’t you see how hard I work? Can’t you appreciate the discipline this takes? Isn’t this enough for you? Don’t you see my sacrifice? Why bother with the ones who can’t seem to pull it together?”
And the tax collector, forced into a separate sphere life, the perks of wealth and protection that come from his occupation are a small consolation when his heart cries out in desperation. “Jesus, I don’t know what to do. I’m trapped. I just took this job to make some money but everything has gotten so twisted. Now they hate me as much as they hate the Romans, I feel like there’s nothing I can do to get out of this situation. Does it even matter what I do? Why should God bother with me?”
The paradox, the crux of our faith is God’s power being made perfect in weakness. When we can face the sober reality of our helplessness, our powerlessness over sin and separation from the source of life, that’s when Jesus can step in to lift us up. This is not self-loathing, and it is not acquiescence to a label foisted upon us by others. It is facing the reality of our condition just as simply as the fact that without my glasses I am a danger to myself and others in the world.
When those moments of humility befall us, we may, like the tax collector, find ourselves beating our breast hunched over in sorrow but Jesus does not intend to leave us broken or alone, nor to watch us wallow in grief. Whenever we have the occasion to honestly humble ourselves, we will find Jesus waiting with open arms. The tears of compunction will water the flowers of praise in our soul. As the Psalmist writes, “Weeping may stay the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
This is the way of humble access. This is the way of mercy. When our prayer is “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” We are asking far more than “God, please don’t kill me in your wrath.” When we ask God’s mercy we can expect true pity, compassion, and the prodigal love of a Father running to meet us on the way home.
In that expectation, hear again the words of Hosea-
‘Come, let us return to the Lord;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
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