Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV)
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“God be merciful to me, a sinner!” It is a simple prayer, but it can take a lot of self-awareness to get us to such a place.
In the case of the tax collector, he had to fall low in the eyes of other Jews, and then he had to fully realize what his status meant in relation to God. You may be asking yourself, “Tax collector? What’s wrong with being a tax collector?” Jokes about the IRS aside, being a Jewish tax collector was much different than being an employee of the modern tax system. In Israel in Jesus’ day, tax collectors were on about the same level in society as prostitutes and lepers.
For all practical purposes, Jewish tax collectors were traitors. They had decided to go to work for the occupying Roman Empire. They had the backing of the Roman army, a lot of flexibility in making assessments, and were known for using their positions to enrich themselves. Being a tax collector was a good way to be rich and hated all at the same time.
Somehow, some way, this particular tax collector in Jesus’ parable had come to regret the man he had become, but his feelings of emptiness and utter rejection were actually to his advantage. God heard his sad, broken, heartfelt prayer and granted him justification, what we might today call salvation.
Contrast the tax collector’s situation with the Pharisee, a legalistically religious man who would have appeared righteous to the world. He pursued God, but he wasn’t meeting God where it mattered, in his mind and heart. Even in his prayers to God, he exalted himself.
Look how holy I am. Look at the good I do. God, when you look at me and compare me to the people nearby, I must stand out! Thanks, God, for making me one of your favorites.
What should be of concern to many of us is that we potentially have more in common with the Pharisee than we do with the tax collector. (If you’re saying, “No, trust me, I’m broken like the tax collector,” at least know that in the upside-down world of salvation, you may be strangely blessed and already way ahead of me in understanding Jesus’ story.)
Those of us who have a veneer of respectability—a title, a position, a public reputation—have to be a little more conscious of our need to surrender to God wholly and fully. We need to seek humility; we need to understand that in the eyes of God, none of us are worthy. To quote Paul in Romans 3, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”
Short of personal disasters that might wipe out affluence or reputation, we have a more difficult path to open ourselves to God. We have to choose to be vulnerable, a state that normally has very negative connotations.
I first offer you a little exercise in humility. It is no great secret to salvation, but it helps. From time to time, try something you’re not good at doing. I’m practicing yoga, and it’s kind of a sad thing to watch, I’m sure, particularly when I’m in downward dog (think shaky chihuahua) or reclined pigeon (I call it “broken bird”). But not only is it good for me, the struggle keeps me humble.
The challenge you take on doesn’t have to be physical. Just try something you know you’re not good at, struggle to improve—perhaps in vain—and learn to laugh at yourself a little.
We need to go further, too. In prayer, we have to be willing to call ourselves sinners. Because of our sins, we cannot be good enough for God on our own. We never will be. It doesn’t matter what we accumulate in terms of titles, homes, cars or 401Ks. God will not be impressed.
As we remember our sins, we should beat our breasts from time to time, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I don’t think God wants us to wallow in our sins, but we certainly need to remember they happened, and perhaps still blush at them a little.
Occasionally focusing on our inabilities and sins helps us remember how much we need God. He is perfect, we are not. It is foolish to approach God like we are somehow equal to him.
And when we get there—when we truly humble ourselves—we are much better equipped to understand what a great gift we have been given in Jesus Christ.
God owed us nothing, we owed him everything, and through sin we created a debt we could never repay. And yet, God came. God came for the undeserving, the broken, the lost.
We are no better than prostitutes, criminals, or traitorous tax collectors. Isn’t it strange that once we accept that truth, we are made ready for eternity with God.
The featured image, “Biblical Illustration of Gospel of Luke Chapter 18,” is by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, Texas, 1984.