Reflection on Luke 18.9-14 (Lent)

The tax collector said: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

In today’s reading we are presented with two very different approaches to matters of faith. First we hear of the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the Pharisee. Rather than praying for forgiveness in all humility, he assumes the attitude of one who seems to be demanding gratitude from God. He speaks of his superiority over other people and of his tithing and fasting. He also makes clear his contempt for those whom he considers to be inferior, such as the tax collector who is also praying in the temple.

On the other hand we are invited to consider the attitude of the tax collector. A tax collector was a hated member of society. Tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the occupying Roman regime, and as those who stole from honest people. In general, the tax collectors were lumped together with the untouchables of first century Jewish society. However, this tax collector was a man of faith. Despite all his faults, he still came to the temple to pray, and in that prayer he demonstrated humility and his understanding of his need for forgiveness.

The Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable can be seen in the world today. As we look around us we can all identify those who adopt an attitude of superiority over others and, sadly not so often, we can also recognise those who have sufficient self-knowledge to understand that they are in constant need of God’s forgiveness in their lives. The challenge for us today is stark … are we a ‘Pharisee’ in our attitude to matters of faith, or are we a ‘tax collector’? That is a very demanding challenge because we live in a world that celebrates an unfounded level of arrogance; a world in which the self-acclaimed sinner is seen as weak and inadequate.

Today, Jesus makes it plain that the one who will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven is the one who is humble and self-deprecating. The Pharisee will be the one whose ultimate fate is eternal damnation. Today we are being challenged to set aside all that gives us an inflated sense of self-importance and to come to God acknowledging our need for his forgiveness in our lives.

Let us pray that we might recognise the ‘tax collector’ in ourselves, and allow God the space he needs to take us to himself. Let us also pray for those whose arrogance separates them from God, that they might come to understand that they are loved for who they really are, and not for the persona they don to impress others.