“God, be merciful to me…a sinner.”

A parable, remember; a story of extremes.  No Pharisee was ever so self-aggrandizing; no tax collector so self-aware.  The real challenge in this parable is that the Pharisee singles out this particular tax collector.  He notices a reluctance in his approach to the holy space; perhaps he sees, in that reluctance, acknowledgement of guilt – and so the Pharisee imagines his disdain is justified…and there is that difficult word – one that traps and trips us even to this day.

A warning against pride, certainly; an encouragement to further humility, without a doubt… but was the Pharisee exultant?  Was the tax collector truly humble?  Since God knows every heart, is this – perhaps – a lesson in God’s level of tolerance?

Two went to the sanctuary to pray.  One was a regular – familiar with the ritual, confident in the results.  “Thank you Lord that I have my religious ducks in a row; I’ve never missed a meeting; I go to all the church suppers; I know all the good hymns and remember all the right words…and I pay my way – not like that person over there…”

That person “over there” keeps to herself, head down; not a stranger, but not part of the congregation either.  An occasional guest; not sure she should have come, but unable to stay away.  Silently praying – simply hoping (against hope) that this time, she might encounter mercy.  This time, she might find that glimmer of grace that would let her lay down the burden she carried.

This is what churches all over the world look like.  Sunday after Sunday, faithful people of every degree – those who are dangerously confident, and those who are courageously timid – take their places (and their chances) in God’s presence.  The confident sing loudly and pray with certainty; “Thanks you God for all we have.”  The rest sing loudly and pray fearfully; “God, I need but one thing.”  That there are so many different kinds of people in worship is not the problem.  That we imagine that the goal is that all should be equally confident – equally comfortable – equally JUSTIFIED – THAT is the problem.

In a culture that recognized, not only many different religious traditions, but innumerable ways to practice those religions, Jesus tells a parable against religion as an instrument of judgement.  God, as judge, does not need our assistance; God, who knows the contours of each heart, can certainly tell one intention from another far better than us.  So too in our time – a time of many different religious traditions and emerging expressions of religious feeling – Jesus parable warns against the smug certainty of the “saved”, turning our expectations (once again) upside down.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled…all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  A lesson we fail to learn, especially when we imagine that our “way of life” (so called) is threatened by changes in the cultural fabric.  Whether the issue is governance, or labour relations; immigration or questions of equality; the world has changed while the church – citing the eternal nature of God – has changed more slowly.  And we (the church universal) take positions that sound  much like the Pharisee’s prayer: “we have been faithful – we have lived by the rules and maintained our opinions…not like those people…”

While the rest – “those people” – whether in ignorance of our position, or fearful of our opinion, simply seek mercy.

This is, I’ll admit, a gross simplification – but so is any parable.  The mystery of a parable is the gift of continual insight as you tell it, and hear it in new situations, under different conditions.  And as I hear this parable (Luke 18: 9-14) in the fall of 2016, in the middle of a terrifying American election cycle, with religious intolerance and racial unrest growing larger in our awareness every day, I am afraid for the church.  I’m afraid because it would be easy to cling to our ‘convictions’ – to stand on the certainty of our creeds and our doctrine.  “Jesus is the answer”, we could say, “no matter what the question.”  The cautionary tale that is the current presidential election has shown us that, for some folks, truth becomes those things that are said loudly and often.  We have professed our faith, as a matter of course, week in and week out.  We are certain of our salvation.  To us, the path is obvious.

But ours is not the only path.  The awkward prayers of the quiet, confused, hesitant, and occasionally faithful are equally valid.  The voice of the stranger, the need of the alien in your midst – the ‘orphan’ (in terms of religious affiliation?) – these too merit God’s attention and God’s action.  Our faithfulness may be evident by our personal piety – and we may feel very strongly about displaying that faithfulness in very meaningful ways – but that personal piety is not how God will judge us.

The beautiful thing about the two individuals in this parable, is that they are each searching for the same thing – God’s mercy.  The Pharisee is afraid he won’t receive it – the tax collector is afraid he doesn’t deserve it – and both of them have got it wrong.

God’s pleasure is to show mercy.  God’s preference is to act in grace.  God’s delight is in the redemption of all creation – rain falling on the just and the unjust – and no clearer sign of that intention was ever given than at an empty tomb where the misery of the cross was wiped clean by the gift of new life.

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord – and God will raise you up;  so goes a song I learned at camp.  Good advice too, in a world where the loudest voice seems too often to get the largest reward.  If the church wants to be a unique voice in the culture, then perhaps humility is the way to go.


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