What must I do to inherit eternal life? People keep asking that question. Someone asked it of Jesus (Mark 10:17-31, etc.), and we’re still asking it. When asked about your most urgent question last month, several of you responded with questions like these: Will I make it to heaven? Am I pleasing to God? Will I fulfill all I was put here to do? These questions and others like them are all related to gaining eternal life, the abundant life Jesus offered (John 10:10). What must I do to gain a whole, completed life with God?
The Pharisee in today’s parable (Luke 18:10-14a) wanted the same things and was asking the same questions. And he had an answer, the answer of his religious tradition: You gain abundant, eternal life by faithfully obeying God’s law. And he tried his best to do it. He was a good man and outstanding citizen – a pillar of the church, we’d call him today. He lived an honest, respectable life; he practiced his religion faithfully and gratefully. He kept his life focused on heaven. But at the end of the day, he didn’t find what he was living for.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was about as different as could be from the Pharisee. He betrayed his people, collaborated with the enemy, oppressed and disadvantaged his neighbors, and undermined the social, cultural, and religious values of his nation. He was most of what the Pharisee was not. Yet at the end of the day he found what he was looking for. He went home justified, made right with God, blessed with the relationship with God he so desperately wanted.
There are a couple of curious things about these two pray-ers in the temple. Nowhere in the parable is the Pharisee described as a bad man. All the clues we’re given indicate he was a good man, a model of faithful living. You’d probably find him sitting next to you in any gathering for worship. And there’s no clue the tax collector turned out to be a good man, no sign that he asked forgiveness, repented, and reformed his way of life. For all we know, he remained a scoundrel and misfit to his final day. At least in this parable, the relationship these two seek with God does not depend on their living what we know as the right kind of life.
The writer of Luke’s gospel made this a parable of reversal, introducing it by having Jesus tell it “to some who trusted . . . that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (v. 9), and ending with the moral, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (v. 14b). But if you take out this framing and look only at the parable, it appears to be an example of how, if we want to find a perfect relationship with God, we need to stop looking for a perfect future in heaven and look instead to the most imperfect, broken, wounded places in our present lives.
The Pharisee stands in the temple celebrating his fullness; the tax collector stands there drowning in his emptiness. The Pharisee stands in the fullness of social and economic health, and probably physical health as well, thanking God for his blessings; the tax collector stands in utter brokenness, beating his breast in a sign of desperate mourning, begging for mercy. The Pharisee celebrates what he has; the tax collector is aware only of what he lacks. The Pharisee, despite his fullness, goes home empty; the tax collector, because of his emptiness, goes home filled.
And maybe there’s the key to the relationship we seek with God. The tax collector “would not even look up to heaven” (v. 13). He would not look to what he hoped the future would hold; he would not look to the perfect ever-after; he did not fix his attention on what his life was not. He looked instead to what his life was, to his brokenness, to his frustration, to his disappointment, to the great need that lay beneath all the others. And there he retreated – stood “far off” the parable says (v. 13) – and begged for mercy.
There’s great value in keeping our eyes on the prize, on counting our blessings, expressing gratitude for them, and looking to the brighter side of life. Beginning each day with thanks and ending each one the same way is an essential spiritual discipline to maintain. According to Meister Eckart, if the only prayer you ever said was “Thank you,” it would be enough. There’s no blame for that Pharisee who stood in the temple and thanked God. And he might be forgiven if he set himself above the tax collector, God is so generous in mercy.
There’s great value, also, in confronting our brokenness, our greatest need, head-on, in probing its depths with open eyes and open hearts and letting its currents carry us to the point where the only thing we can do is beat our breast and beg for mercy. For it may be exactly there that, if we are open to it, we find the key to the relationship with God we’ve been seeking.