The prayer of the humble
“God, I thank you that I am not like….” How would we end that sentence? Jesus’ parable sets a trap for us, a trap that stops us and brings us face to face with the reality of our life and our relationship with God. Who is the Pharisee trying to convince – God or himself? His prayer is directed not so much to God but to himself. He is not describing his faith or spiritual practices. He is keeping score. Anytime we begin keeping score of our own life or the life of another we need to know that something deeper is going on. Score keeping can be a way we either deny or try to overcome the feeling of emptiness, the loss of meaning, the brokenness of our life. We use it to deny what is dead within us, as a way of convincing ourselves that we are okay and our life is fine. The problem is that when we think we have everything – answers, doctrine, law, piety, reputation, stuff, success – when we think we have the requisite number of points, then we have no need of God. We have no need of resurrection and we choose to remain dead.
From the outside the Pharisee and tax collector seem very different. They are not, however, as different as we might think, for on the inside they are both dead; lost, broken, and in need of God. The difference is not their place in society. The real difference is that the tax collector knows he is dead and the Pharisee does not. The difference is that the Pharisee keeps score and the tax collector cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner! One who is missing you. One who is in need of you. One who is and has nothing apart from you.” This parable is the invitation to stop keeping score, to acknowledge and hold before God the dead places of our life: the failures and disappointments; the break ups and break downs; the emptiness, sufferings, addictions; the places of our life where we no longer dream dreams, have visions, or prophesy. That is what the tax collector did.
The tax collector went home justified, not because he was good or better than the Pharisee, but because he offered God a dead life not a scorecard. God did not withhold anything from the Pharisee. We don’t know what happened after he got home but we know this: a choice now lay before him, the choice to walk into his own resurrection. That does not tell us how the story ends. It tells us, rather, how it might begin.