Jesus directs this parable to the self-righteous Pharisees. These religious leaders were known for their piety and self-proclaimed Abrahamic “right” to the kingdom of God. As Jesus points out, the Pharisee’s prayer, however, is an offering of false thanksgiving. The Pharisee is thankful for his own piety and for not being “one of them,” the group of marginalized sinners who do not follow the Deuteronomic/Mosaic Law of Judaism. But Jesus turns his audience’s attention to the humble contrition of the most loathed member of first-century Palestinian society, the parasitic tax collector. It is the humble contrition of the tax collector, however, that receives God’s mercy and forgiveness. The tax collector prays “at a distance,” not even raising his eyes to God. He beats his chest confirming his own unworthiness and self blame, putting himself at the absolute mercy of God. The Pharisee prays from the position of entitlement and pride; the tax collector prays from a distance, unworthy and humble.
Who am I in the scheme of God’s grace? How do I approach prayer and petition? This parable, written for a first-century Jewish audience, adapts well to a modern audience, to me, forcing me to look at my moment-to-moment walk with Christ. Jesus’ words function as a reminder that I, too, am no better than the most despised sinner in the world. God’s love is unfathomable, His forgiveness immeasurable, when we approach the altar of grace with humility and contrition.
Lord, please grant me the gift of humility and contrition so that I, too, can rightly pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.