When I read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke I am usually taken with the Pharisee’s part of the story. Jesus is warning about spiritual pride, and just how destructive it can be. The warning is a helpful check for those of us heavily involved in the Church. We needed to be periodically reminded that we rely on God’s grace and mercy just as much as the next person. But today I was fascinated by the tax collector’s part of the story.
The tax collector comes to pray and humbles himself before God (not even looking to heaven), confessing his sin (he names himself a sinner), and asking for mercy. This tax collector is not some kind of saint, and the folks hearing Jesus’ parable would probably be surprised to find that he is the good guy in the story. Tax collectors in the Roman Empire were collaborators with an aggressive, oppressive foreign power. They were responsible for sending the tax back to Rome, but anything they could collect above the total tax bill for their area went to line their own pockets. These tax collectors tended to wield their power and authority in very heavy-handed ways, in keeping with Roman practice. And they preyed on the least powerful in their communities, those who had no power or standing to resist them. Think of a corrupt IRS agent using the full power of their position in terrible ways, but instead of fearing their corruption would come to light, having their work praised as effective by the government powers.
Just as we see ourselves in the Pharisee, the tax collector is us too. Terribly in need of redemption. The difference is how they see themselves, how they see others, how they approach God, and what they say to God. For all the tax collector’s faults, he still repents. Honestly seeking mercy from God leads not to terrifying judgement, but to justification, making our standing right with God. But it is hard, we have to willingly look into the mirror of our lives and recognize that we are like the tax collector.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:17