The figures in this parable represent character types that we know well — the Pharisee, the pretentious prig, and the tax collector, the ruthless opportunist. Jesus compares and contrasts these two unsavory characters to teach us about a quality that we all need in life: the quality of mercy.
There is the character of the tax collector, a scoundrel by definition in first century Palestine — someone who preyed on people for profit. As a collaborator of an occupying power, he could demand inflated commissions from his fellow Jews. Every tax collector was in on the scheme, it seems. When some of them asked John the Baptist in the desert what they should do to repent and change their lives, he told them not to collect more money from the people than was prescribed, (Luke 3:12). This scheming for personal success, this strategizing to exploit God’s struggling people for his own enrichment made the tax collector someone who was despised by all. This man knows how isolated he is; Jesus emphasizes that he stands far off — away from everyone else.
In our competitive, adversarial world, people feel pressured to act like an unrepentant tax collector ready to do whatever it takes to get ahead. Our hyped-up, profit-driven culture idolizes the narcissistic, in-it-for-yourself anti-hero. Things, not people, come first for someone with this hard-ball, success-driven take on life. He, (or she), can’t stand losers. Seeing to his own interests, no matter what the cost to others, is what the game of life is all about; his success justifies his existence.
Then there is that other detestable figure, the self righteous, holier-than-thou Pharisee. Humility is not among his virtues; arrogance has become his preferred style. Superior to all, he considers himself entitled to everything. With a hubris that knows no bounds, the Pharisee thoroughly expects God to concur in his self-evaluation. He firmly believes his own credits; he is a victim of his own résumé. He doesn’t hesitate to invoke divine approval for the way he defines himself over against the rest of the world. He thanks God that he’s not like other people; the man has turned the practice of religion into the art of manipulating God!
Pity the man who says he has no need to ask forgiveness, even from God. It doesn’t occur to him that he might, at times, get things very wrong in life, that he might sometimes betray his heritage of being created in God’s own image, or that he might occasionally fail to love God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself. Pity him, and fear him, as well. For what inner check is there on this solipsistic character to constrain him from acting only by his own lights and solely for the sake of his own ego? That attitude is bad enough in an individual, it becomes especially dangerous when it’s projected into society. When “I’m better than you” becomes “We’re better than you,” that’s where racism, prejudice, and social inequalities of all kinds abound.
For different reasons, both the Pharisee and the tax collector find themselves in quite the same position: in their self-concern they become self-isolating; they are cut off from God, alienated from other people, and even from themselves. It’s easy for us to become one or the other. I, for example, have long had to struggle with the sins of the Pharisee.
Since as far back as I can remember, I was known in my family and sometimes by my friends and at school as “the odd one.” I can hardly blame people for this; growing up I knew that I was different. Of course, this labelling hurt deeply. I didn’t know how to handle it, but I had to do something. I remember deciding as a young boy, “OK, if that’s how you’re going to treat me, then, I’ll be different. And out of my pain I further resolved, “I’ll be better than you!” Adopting this haughty strategy, however, had the perverse effect of alienating me all the more from everyone around me!
So, I can identify with the Pharisee in this story, who is all about competing with others by way of making comparisons. When I would do this, I’d sometimes come out on top with my raging ego mollified. At other times, I’d fare badly at the comparison game, feeling inadequate and sorry for myself because I couldn’t beat the competition. These odious comparisons, whether they end in self-puffery or in self-pity, are always self-defeating — they keep us so off-center, so insecure, and so needy.
These two miserable character types share a common condition: they are supremely on their own. The Pharisee has no need for God: he’s so great, he considers himself perfectly righteous. Nor does he need anyone else except to show how superior he is. He’s “Mr. Perfect,” all on his own. And the tax collector didn’t need God to accumulate his power and wealth; self-sufficient in a dog-eat-dog world, he used everyone and depended on no one.
But it is the tax collector who breaks out of his “type” in the parable and shows us what both characters need: they need God’s mercy in their lives. The successful charlatan admits to making a spectacular mess of his life; he acknowledges his need for something more than his own strivings, for someone more than himself. He knows that asking for God’s mercy is the only hope he has for becoming the man of goodness and integrity that God intended him to be.
The Pharisee of the story, by contrast, has no idea how false and flawed a man he truly is and how much he, too, needs to pray for God’s mercy. He congratulated himself on being so unlike the tax collector and the rest of the world. But Jesus teaches that we are, indeed, all alike: we are all in need of mercy. When you accept that about yourself, that’s all it takes to change your life. Whether you’ve screwed up and have a lot to be ashamed of, or you’re that profoundly insecure person who must always compare yourself to everyone else, the one way out, the sure way for everything to change, is to start with admitting your need for God’s mercy.
It was only when I was at a very low point in my life that I finally realized that God did not love me for my striving achievements. God didn’t really care whether I was much better than or quite inferior to anyone else. This gracious God simply cared about me. I understood at last that God loved me simply because I was created to thrive on this merciful love. And what God really wanted was for me to share that blessing — joyfully — with others.
This is what Jesus came to reveal, that God is Mercy Itself, that God yearns to embrace your wretched, competitive, comparing self with a mercy that restores and empowers you to be at last what you were truly meant to be. Throw yourself on God’s healing mercy, and you’ll no longer need to feed those insatiable beasts of self-deception and self-justification that live inside you.
And you’ll discover something else about God’s mercy — how it frees you to live for something more than your conniving, inflated persona. When you’re caught up in yourself, you can’t be any good for anyone else. But once you accept God’s mercy, the great theme of your life changes from competition to compassion. Mercy reminds us that we truly are like everyone else and frees us to see how much others need mercy and forgiveness in their lives, as well. The miracle is that when we admit our need for mercy, we expand our capacity to be merciful!
Living by God’s mercy fulfills us in a way that we could never fill ourselves. It enables us to live with humble confidence, reconciled with God, at peace with ourselves, and one with everyone else. The quality of mercy is the key to a well-lived life.
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2016