For a moment, imagine the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14) unfolding before us.
The Pharisee is dressed to the nines. Accompanying his flowing garment is an extra-large phylactery, a leather case containing scripture passages, worn around his head. And his tassels? They are extra-long, fashionable, and serve as a reminder (see Mt 23) that he is both devoted to the Law of Moses and the holder of a place of honor in the Temple. High class and high ideals. Yep, that’s him. To paraphrase his words and prayer: “Oh God, thank you that I’m not like them. I’m not greedy, adulterous, and dishonest.” If it were possible to transport him to a Nashville recording studio, he could accompany vocalist Mac Davis and sing the tune: “O, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when I’m perfect in every way.”
And then there is the tax collector. He is dressed simply, a member of the Roman bureaucracy, and goes about his daily business extracting for Caesar that which is due. The entire universe, however, knows his modus operandi; which is to collect a bit more than taxes due——for himself! If we could look up his name in a dictionary, he would be described as corrupt and despised. However, at some point, his conscience gets the best of him and he recognizes that he is in the presence of God. And solemnly, he hangs his head low and prays: “O, God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Now if we are honest with ourselves, we can find moments in our lives where we’ve played both roles. As the Pharisee, we have been the one who “knows it all, has all the answers, and is so convinced about our own truth, that even God couldn’t convince us otherwise.” On the other hand, in our role as the Tax Collector, we have awakened to itching skin. Our conscience, the Voice of God deep within us, has convinced us that something is deeply wrong in our lives that needs immediate attention and mending.
In family life, how often have “family feuds” gone on for years? In my own family, I can recall attending a funeral where two individuals, because of an argument, hadn’t spoken to one another in decades. Over the years, each had dug in their heels and taken on the role of the Pharisee; namely that each was right and the other was——wrong (and clearly the Tax Collector!) But at the funeral, something wonderful happened. When the two saw each other, it was though their hearts melted. And they forgave each other. Although many years had passed and were wasted, they once again were able to re-establish their friendship and bonds—-and move on.
A slightly different—- but similar—- phenomenon occurred with St. Paul. In the Second Letter to Timothy (2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18), as his earthly life was nearing the end, Paul pondered his life in Christ, namely that…
He had competed well…He had finished the race…He had kept the Faith.
But, as we know, that wasn’t always the case for the Apostle. For if we remember, the well-educated Paul (then Saul) once persecuted the Church and stood watch as St. Stephen the Deacon, the first Martyr of the Church, was stoned to death. His self-righteousness and hate raged and raged and raged, until one day, on that dusty road to Damascus, the Lord called out to him. And from that hour forward, Paul found himself on the trajectory of that sinful tax collector. And in that grace-filled moment, the Lord called and healed him, and used him for great things.
Today, Jesus speaks to all of us—-the self righteous! He asks us to mend in our families and lives that which requires mending. May we call out to our forgiving and merciful God and repeat the words of the repentant tax collector: O’God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
And marvel at what God will do.