“DO YOU PLAY FAVORITES?” (Lk 18:9-14): 01 March 2008 (Saturday)
I wouldn’t do what God did in today’s parable. In the parable we have two people doing almost the exact same thing: A Pharisee and a Publican go up to the temple to pray. No two persons can be more different from each other. The Pharisee belongs to a class of Jews who observe the Law religiously. The Pharisees, in other words, are the good guys.
The Publican is a tax collector. Now that’s a bad word if ever we hear one. In those days—and as we know, even today, “tax collector” conjures images of crooks who take advantage of others by imposing unfair taxes. The tax collectors are clearly the bad guys; in the gospels they are up there on the list of sinners along with the prostitutes.
The Pharisee’s prayer is a prayer of gratitude: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Now, if I were God, I would probably be a little turned off by the Pharisee’s self-righteousness, especially when he compares himself to others, including the tax collector. But as a whole, I would have to approve of him. After all, he is a pretty good and moral man: He avoids sin and the usual vices. He performs his religious obligations, fasting and even donating money to the temple.
Now what about the tax collector? His prayer is totally different. He can’t even bring himself to go near the altar. We’re told that “he stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven.” And the only thing he can say is: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I think if I were God, I would be touched by his honesty, but most especially by his humility. I would most probably grant him mercy, why not? After all, aside from being a God of Justice, I’m also supposed to be a God of Mercy, and this tax collector sounds really sorry for—and ashamed of—his sins. But wouldn’t it be only appropriate that before I grant him forgiveness, I first demand that he make up for his sins? I mean, repentance is nice, but how about some restitution? Shouldn’t he, for example, first return some of the money he has stolen from people?
And so if I were God, I would generally approve of the Pharisee even if I’d probably roll my eyes at his self-righteousness; and second, I would forgive the tax collector provided he would make up for his sins.
Now, here’s the twist: At the end of the parable our Lord tells us that God does neither of the two. Very simply we’re told that the tax collector goes home justified, not the Pharisee.
Wait a second. Is that just? Is that fair? It doesn’t sound fair to me at all–at least not according to our human standards of justice. Why should God justify the sinner without first asking him to return all the money he stole? Worst of all, why shouldn’t God approve of the religious and law-abiding Pharisee just because he was proud of himself? Sure he was way too arrogant, but wasn’t God just a little too emotional? Didn’t he get a little too carried away here?
Based on this parable, it seems to me that God plays favorites. To top it all, his favorites aren’t even those who deserve his favor! The truth is, if you look at the rest of Scripture, you will see that God does have a strong preference for a particular type of people: These are not necessarily those who are good and holy, but simply those who are humble—or as the Beatitudes describe them, those who are “poor in spirit,” as symbolized by the tax collector in the parable.
It’s good to ask why. I don’t think God prefers humble people only because arrogant ones who boast about their holiness turn him off. God’s preference is not based on likes and dislikes. I think it’s because God knows that those who are humble, no matter how sinful, no matter how weak, and no matter how initially far from him, eventually end up closer to him. That’s because they know, more than anyone else, how much they need God and how much they have to depend on him. As a result, they end up surrendering themselves to God more, trusting God more, and feeling more grateful for everything that they have.
On the other hand, those who are proud and self-righteous, no matter how much more religious they are and no matter how much more moral, eventually begin to believe that they deserve to be rewarded. God’s blessings are no longer regarded as gifts that God gives freely, gifts that no one, not even the most religious and moral, deserves. They begin to believe that they have earned their right to receive God’s blessings, and slowly and secretly, they begin to feel less and less grateful for what they have and more and more resentful for what they don’t have.
God is allergic to pride not because boasting annoys him, but because it’s dangerous. Think Lucifer. Think Adam and Eve. Wasn’t it pride that led to both falls?
Going back to the parable, I don’t think the two persons in the parables refer to types of people. Rather, they refer to two very real tendencies in us—two doors, if you wish, that we can use to get to God. If we look inside our hearts, we will find these two doors—let’s call them the door of the Pharisee and the door of the tax collector.
The door of the Pharisee is actually the Door of Justice: If we choose this door, we will try to work hard to perform our obligations, and we would expect to be rewarded for our efforts. But we should be careful, for this over-emphasis on our own good works may make us feel that we deserve God’s approval, that we have earned the right to God’s love and blessings. The Door of Justice is a door that can lead to God, but it also leads to many other rooms, and if we’re not careful, we may end up in a place actually far from God, a place where because we’ve become too full of ourselves, there’s no more room left for God.
The other door, the door of the tax collector, is the Door of Mercy: It is a much smaller door, and so we can enter only when we are on our knees to make ourselves small and keep ourselves low, to squeeze and enter through this door. If we choose this door, we will still be expected to work hard to perform our obligations, but hopefully we will always remember that if we are able to do good and to be kind to others, it is because—and only because—God is helping us; it is because—and only because—of God’s grace. If we choose this door, it will be hard to forget our constant need for, and dependence on, God.
If we want to be one of God’s favorites, we should go to him through this door, the Door of Mercy. This is the door that leads directly to God’s heart, but remember, we can enter only if we come in on our knees.
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Which door to God do you tend to use more–the so-called Door of Justice or the Door of Mercy?” Think about it, and share a thought, a feeling, or a question.
(image: from journeywithjesus.net)