The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is the classic “goodie” versus “baddie” tale. The Pharisee represented the pillar of Jewish society: a religious man who knew the Law backwards and observed it in all its minute details. The tax collector was the outcast of society: he collaborated with the pagan occupying army of the Romans, overcharged people for their taxes and kept a commission of the money for himself. Yet by the end of the story Jesus reverses their roles.

The story only makes two points. The first is that it is impossible to impress God. Maybe there are Pharisees in some of our churches today. Those

who feel that they are pillars of society; they are well respected in the community; their family has always supported the parish and they live a moral existence  – unlike some of the other members of the congregation that they could name!

Why would we want to “impress” God? Could it be that we can’t actually face up to what we are really like? Could it be that we think God will only have time for us when we improve a bit?

Do we need to shape up before God will pay us any attention? Yet the reality is that God knows us even better than we know ourselves. For we can fool ourselves but we can’t fool God. And the truth is that we can only gain access to God by being totally sincere. Anything else cuts us off.

The second point of the story is that we can do absolutely nothing to earn God’s mercy. The tax collector’s body language was the complete opposite of the Pharisee’s: he beat his breast and didn’t even dare to look up. He was open about two things: he was a sinner and he needed God’s mercy. And he poured his heart out.

This total honesty before God frightens many people. That’s because they believe God acts on a “Brownie points” system and they find it hard to accept that God loves people for what they are not what they should be. God’s way of acting overturns any idea of merit, any thought of earning our salvation. God’s love and forgiveness are indiscriminate and open to anyone who asks sincerely.

Of course, if you accepted your true condition and knew that only the free gift of grace could save you, then you’d really impress God.

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