“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
As we know, parables were one of Jesus’ favorite methods of teaching. One of the keys to understanding this parable comes in the opening verse… “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” No one wants to think of themselves as the seemingly sanctimonious Pharisee, and we tend to gravitate to the seemingly humble tax-collector. What I would like to challenge all of us to consider is that we likely inhabit both personas at different points in time, and that there are lessons for all of us from this teaching of Jesus.
Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, makes the point that, “When we seek universal morals from a genre that is designed to surprise, challenge, shake up, or indict and look for a single meaning in a form that opens to multiple interpretations, we are necessarily limiting the parables and, and so, ourselves.” (Short Stories by Jesus, page 4). In her book chapter on this parable, Levine unpacks the parable as one that would have been a great surprise to a first-century Jewish audience. Neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector behaves in an expected manner. Listeners would not expect a Pharisee to be dismissive of others in the community, and they would be surprised that a tax collector could be repentant. (Ibid, page 185)
So, what are we in the twenty-first century supposed to make of this parable? I would simply submit that we are all dependent upon the mercy and grace of God. We cannot earn or even beg our way to God’s grace because it is freely given by the One who created us and loves us more than we can ask or imagine. Trusting in ourselves alone is always fraught with peril, whereas depending on God is freeing and life-giving. God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
Collect for Saturday in the Third Week of Lent
O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen. (Lesser Feasts and Fasts)