“Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Well, I sure hope this parable isn’t addressed to me. It is just a story, a parable, right?
But then stories and parables invite us to identify with characters – even if we don’t get a lot of choices here. We can be the Pharisee, but then it’s pretty clear that’s not a great choice. You can almost hear the hubris, the pride, and the scorn in his prayer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”
I suspect most of us would favor the tax collector. He seems to be the epitome of humility, is sincere, prayerful, and a model of conversion and penitence.
Sure, he has been extorting people, shaking them down for the Roman overlords and some profit for himself. Sure, he is considered a traitor and an outcast from Jewish life – someone whose life is “breaking bad.” But he has reached a moment of conversion, right? He is about to get right with God. Here is the one moment, a moment when all the trappings of life are torn away, he finally sees himself in relationship to God: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It is moment of change, of redemption, of salvation – suspended in this parable like an ancient insect forever suspended in amber.
The early 20th century evangelist, Billy Sunday is reported to have said once that the best thing that could happen to any person would be to reach this same moment, to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, walk out of the revival tent, be hit by a truck, and killed instantly. There would be no backsliding, no withering under the scorching sun of modern life, and no chance to move from this one moment.
But then that is the problem. The tax collector is a character in the parable who never moves from the moment. In three years time we will return to this gospel and the tax collector will still be right there saying the same words – on the border of judgment and mercy – not moving in either direction. As though penitence was his permanent spiritual posture.
That is probably an odd way to see the parable, but too often as a priest, a confessor, a fellow Christian, I see people suspended in the amber of permanent penitence. People whose life, at one level, moves on from that moment, but they are invaded by a sense of unworthiness that takes over their self-understanding. They look like they are in motion to sanctity, wholeness and completion in God’s grace, but they really are not. They suffer from a spiritual paralysis from analysis.
You want to shake them and remind them of the words of St. Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” I want to say to them, “Hey, it ain’t over. Life isn’t over. Get going from this suspended moment and trust that you are forgiven. Accept God’s grace and move beyond regret, remorse, and confession of sins. Move into life and be blessed; be a blessing to others.
If it is the humility of the tax collector that attracts us, then be mindful that true humility is never suspended in the amber of one moment. True humility allows the power of God to work through us unencumbered by the arrogance that assumes that we are to be placed above others. Unfettered by the self-loathing that presumes to denigrate oneself; one made in the image of God and loved by God.
True humility moves and breathes and has life. It gives life. It is meant to live in the life around us. It is meant to run the race and to keep the faith.
This parable is a story in amber. But sooner or later the priest closes the Bible, says, “Here ends the lesson,” and the listeners go out into the world to love and serve our neighbors, divested of both arrogance and shame.
Well…. here ends the lesson. Amen.