A story that I heard when I was a novice continues to challenge me ten years later. It’s a story about a father and a daughter. Like many fathers and daughters, these two had a bedtime routine. The daughter would change into her pajamas, brush her teeth, and ask her father to tell her a bedtime story. Up until this point, this routine seems pretty typical, but the next part is unique.
One year for her birthday, this little girl got something that she liked very much. It was a pearl necklace, and to the little girl it was the most valuable thing in the whole world. As children often do with things that they like, this little girl put on the pearl necklace every night before bed, because having something close by that meant so much to her helped her to feel secure. After the girl put on the necklace, every night her father always said the same thing in a kind voice.
“That necklace is great, but I have something that you’ll like even better. Won’t you trade me? If you’ll give me that necklace, I’ll give you another present in return. “
Every night the little girl shook her head and replied in the same way. “There couldn’t possibly be anything more valuable in the world than this necklace.”
When he heard this, the father smiled, and without saying anything more, gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek and waited for her to go to bed. On the outside, he was smiling, but on the inside he felt a little pain. The reason why was that the necklace he had given his daughter before had plastic pearls, but the one that he wanted to give her now was a necklace of real pearls. He was not going to force it on her, however; he was waiting for her to ask for it herself.
This story presents us with an image of God who desires to give us great things, but at the same time respects our freedom; in turn, Jesus’ parable today invites us to consider: what do we hold on to that prevents us from receiving God’s mercy?
Jesus addresses the parable today to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” I believe it’s a parable about two different ways to relate to our sinfulness. I mean to use sinfulness in a broad sense, so that it encompasses the anger or hurt that we hold on to from the past; the insecurity we feel about ourselves; the lack of trust we feel toward others and God; the smallness of our vision.
If we’re honest with ourselves, at different moments all of these things afflict us. We hold grudges or get caught in past wounds; we doubt the choices we make, we don’t feel confident in our roles as parents, teachers, nurses, doctors, businesspeople, friends, human beings, new deacons. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we encounter our weakness and our limitations.
These things themselves are not sinful—the hurt, the pain, the fear, the doubt, and all the rest. They become occasions of sin, however, when they obstruct our relationships with God and one another, when they block us from receiving God’s mercy.
The Pharisee provides a graphic example of how this plays out. “Thank you that I’m not like the rest of humanity, or not even like that guy over there.” In psychological language, we could say that he’s compensating for his own insecurity, fasting and tithing, beyond the observance of the Mosaic law. We can laugh, but how often have we been that person—taking on extra projects at work, organizing additional activities at home, overfunctioning in our personal relationships? We drive ourselves and other people crazy, and at what cost? We work out our anger or pain on the people around us instead of taking a long, hard look at ourselves.
As a friend of mine would say, “how’s that working for you?” My experience is that in the long term this way of living doesn’t make the insecurity, the pain, or the fear go away; it pushes it down into a deep, dark place where it festers. As in the case of the girl who couldn’t let go of the plastic pearls, however, in the meantime we can feel very safe as we clutch it very tightly. What’s more, God, who respects our freedom, will in fact stay there with us in this place, perhaps smiling on the outside but crying a little bit on the inside.
The tax collector, on the other hand, embraces his weakness with open hands and an open heart as he begins his prayer the same way we began this liturgy: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” We might put it in other ways: restore my relationship with you, show me the signs of your presence around me, reassure me that I’ve made the right choices, give me the healing that I can’t engineer for myself. Help me to let go of whatever it is that I am holding on to so that I can receive your mercy in its place.
Can we pray this way? Can we acknowledge our poverty and offer not only our worries, our doubts, our fears, our pain, but in fact our very selves to the Lord? As the Psalm says so eloquently, the Lord hears the cry of the poor. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. The Lord redeems the lives of his servants. In fact, our first reading from Sirach describes “the cry of the oppressed,” the “wail of the orphan,” and the “complaint of the widow,” as sacrificial offerings that “reach the heavens,” “pierce the clouds,” and “do not withdraw until the Most High responds.” See the contrast: instead of clutching tightly like the Pharisee, the tax collector offers with open hands.
This sacrificial context invites us to step back so we can imagine the full scene. The Pharisee and the tax collector are not praying in their rooms or even praying alone in an empty church. The two “went up to the temple area to pray.” They are probably standing outside—imagine St. Peter’s Square or one of the Pope’s outdoor Masses with a million people—as a huge liturgy is going on in front of them. Incense, offering, chanting, crowds of people in every direction. A spectacle on par with the Holy Week. Perhaps even a little like the Mass of Ordination yesterday at the Oakland cathedral.
Jesus describes the tax collector as initially looking down but I wonder if after a while he was able to look up and left and right. If he did, I bet he saw familiar faces, faces who drew him outside of himself, that reminded him in large and small ways of God’s love and mercy in his life. I wonder if he was able to soak it all in—the beauty, the majesty, the mystery of a God who grounded his life. “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The tax collector humbled himself, and the Lord in turn lifted up his gaze. This new perspective changed everything.
This tax collector reminds me of another famous tax collector, Levi or Matthew, whom Jesus calls in the early chapters of the gospel. Perhaps that was part of the healing, that the Lord reminded this tax collector of his initial call, of some prior experience of God’s love that rooted and grounded him but that he had forgotten along the way.
The setting of the Temple too reminds me of the many people who hear their call there in Luke’s gospel. Zachariah the young father. Mary the young mother. Ana and Simeon, an older woman and man entering a new phase of their lives. Jesus the teenager finding his way in the world as he engages with religious leaders. Jesus the teacher beginning his new career as he preaches for the first time. Jesus the passionate activist who is so angered by the exploitation of the poor that he turns over the tables of the moneychangers.
As we gather here on this Sunday morning, which of these characters do we identify with? All of them—in fact, all of us—experience struggles, doubts, and moments of insecurity in our lives. All of them, and all of us, get our fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. For our part, what courage do we need to offer our hurts, pains, anger, and insecurities along with our gifts of bread and wine at this liturgy?
In turn, can we let the Lord lift our vision and renew in us a deep sense of God’s mercy, a mercy that we may have lost touch with but in fact is nearer to us than we could imagine? What new perspective does the Lord offer us today to strengthen us on our journey?
“The tax collector went home justified,” Jesus ends the parable, with renewed relationships with God, with himself, and with his community. We dare to hope for nothing less for ourselves as we continue our celebration of this Eucharist.