The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, by Katie Snipes Lancaster
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Luke 18:9–14
Reflection: This parable feels deliciously predictable. The Pharisees are perpetually demonized in the New Testament as being fake in their piety, so from the vantage point of twenty first century Christ-followers, we see this coming. However in the cultural multiplicity of Jerusalem’s first century religious landscape, the Pharisees were revered for their devotion. Jesus is often preaching a message akin to “things are not as they seem” and “all is backwards.” He says things like “the first will be last and the last will be first.” So while the first century Jesus-follower might assume that the tax collector running errands for Rome might come off as haughty, self-important, and smug before God in prayer, Jesus’ parable reveals that it is actually the opposite, the one viewed as pious struts arrogantly before God.
There is a difference between false piety and a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude toward practicing prayerfulness. Sometimes even when our hearts are most open to God, vulnerable and honest, prayer can still feel like we’re just going through the motions. We practice and practice and practice, bowing our heads, folding our hands, or simply groaning toward God under the weight of our lives, and never feel as if we’ve “figured out” the mystery of prayer.
Yes—even when we bring our wholehearted selves to the task—there is something about prayer that might begin to feel fake, false, artificial, or bogus when you’re not getting the kind of response you’d like to receive in prayer. But that kind of “feeling fake” is different than the Pharisee in the parable, yes? For him the word that comes to mind is smarmy. False piety mixes pity and pomp in a way that gives me at least, the heebie-jeebies. Let us then find our way toward the humility of the tax collector, who admits every imperfection with unguarded honesty, and longs for a robust and repaired relationship, with the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
May we find humility,
praying like the tax collector,
“God show mercy to me.”