It was one of Jesus’ most upsetting parables. A pious Pharisee and a tax-collector go up to the temple to pray. How will God react to two persons of moral and religious life so different and opposed?
The Pharisee prays standing up, secure and with no fear whatever. His conscience doesn’t accuse him of anything. He’s not a hypocrite. What he says is the truth. He faithfully fulfills the Law, and even goes beyond it. He doesn’t attribute any merit to himself, but in it all he gives thanks to God: «I thank you, God». If this man isn’t holy, who could ever be? Clearly he can count on God’s blessing.
The tax-collector, on the other hand, hangs back in a corner. He doesn’t feel comfortable in that holy place. It’s not where he fits. He doesn’t even dare to raise his eyes from the floor. He beats his breast and recognizes his sin. He promises nothing. He can’t leave his work or return what he’s robbed. He can’t change his life. The only thing left for him is to abandon himself to God’s mercy: «God, be merciful to me, a sinner». No one would want to be in his place. God can’t approve his conduct.
Right away Jesus concludes his parable with an upsetting affirmation: «This tax-collector, I tell you, went home again justified; the Pharisee did not». His hearers have all their schemes broken apart. How can he say that God doesn’t recognize the pious one, and on the contrary gives his grace to the sinner? Isn’t Jesus playing with fire? Is it true that in the end what’s decisive isn’t one’s religious life, but God’s unfathomable mercy?
If what Jesus says is true, then before God there’s no security for anyone, as holy as they believe themselves to be. We all need to turn to God’s mercy. When we feel good about ourselves, we point to our own life, and don’t feel the need for anything else. When we accuse ourselves by our conscience and aren’t capable of changing, the only thing left for us is to take refuge in God’s compassion, and only that compassion.
There’s something fascinating about Jesus. His faith in God’s mercy is so upsetting that it’s not easy to believe in him. Probably those who can understand him better are those who have no power to leave their immoral life.
José Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf