In the movie, Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, Indy tries to approach the place where the Grail is hidden, but has to pass three tests. The clue to the first test is, “The penitent man humbles himself before God.” The entrance to the crypt is littered with the headless bodies of those who had already failed in their attempt at seeking the prize of immortality. Indy realizes, at the last moment, that the truly sorrowful need to bow humbly before God or lose their heads.
I think in this scene we can capture a sense of Jesus’ parable in Luke’s Gospel.
It is God we approach with our prayers and petitions. It is before God that we bow; approaching on bended knee with true sorrow in our hearts. God does not ask for a list of our accomplishments, he knows our hearts and the sincerity of our deeds. He knows the love in our hearts. God asks us only to seek his mercy and love to obtain His forgiveness, with sincere and contrite hearts.
In the parable we see two people, a Pharisee and a tax-collector. The first an outwardly pious person who obeys the law; living within the well-defined margins of what was expected of someone of his class. The tax-collector is a despised member of society, the lowest of the low, a public sinner held in great contempt by the “good people”.
The Pharisee comes into the temple, not to ask for God’s mercy and love – seeking forgiveness – he never asks to be forgiven, but he lists his accomplishments to show how he has obeyed all the rules: thereby, in his mind, making him better than all others, certainly better than the tax-collector. He isn’t praying to God, but to the god he’s made of himself. He stands at the front, not meek and humble before God, but self-righteously – God’s equal.
His disdain for all others oppresses the least of God’s children. His thoughts would translate into his actions, betraying his true heart to God.
I have worked with victims of domestic abuse, a form of bullying and I have seen how abusers attempt to make themselves feel better, righteous, if you will, through the humiliation of others. Their thinking is very much like the Pharisee’s – focused on how good or justified they are over other people.
Meanwhile, at the back of the temple, in a dark corner, bows the tax-collector, a sinner. He knows he’s a sinner, unjustified and without a shred of righteousness. He is a penitent man, bowing humbly before God. He asks God for mercy and love without expectation. He makes no assumptions about his position in life and where he stands in the eyes of God.
What I find surprising in this story is the tax-collector even coming into the temple to pray, especially when faced with the contempt of the Pharisee. How many of our “tax-collectors” today would feel welcome to come into church, let alone, seek God’s forgiveness. Maybe that’s why there is great rejoicing in heaven when one ‘lost lamb’ returns to the flock.
Jesus embraces the sinner, the tax-collector, the lost, the miserable and oppressed. He asks each of us too, - to embrace the least of God’s children, our brothers and sisters in Christ:
- to lift up the sinner,
- to seek justice for the oppressed,
- relief for the suffering,
- And peace for the troubled.
It is in loving, with the heart of Jesus that we bow humbly before God; seeking His mercy and forgiveness, finding justification through doing His will and loving as we are loved – all our sisters and brothers. ~Amen
Deacon Don Ron