Incomparable Mercy

Comparisons are odious,” wrote John Lydgate in his poem “Horse, Sheep, and Goose,” which dates to the mid-15th century. In the poem, the animals debate which one is more useful to human beings. The poem creatively exposes how boastful comparisons fuel attitudes of superiority and disdain for others. In much the same way, Jesus uses parables, like the one in today’s Gospel, to help his listeners identify and change behavior in themselves that is harmful.

Two characters, a Pharisee and a tax collector, go up to the temple to pray. Jesus’ original audience would have instinctively compared them, thinking the first to be admirable and the latter despicable. Pharisees were known for their piety. This particular one fasts and tithes above and beyond what is required. Surely these actions indicate that he is righteous, that is, in right relation with God, other human beings and the whole of creation. The Pharisee’s prayer, however, indicates otherwise. The entire prayer directs attention to himself and his accomplishments: “I thank you...I am not like.... I fast.... I pray....” He thanks God not for the gifts he has been given but for not being like all the rest of humanity, which he sees as rapacious, unjust and adulterous. His comparisons make him haughty and disconnected from others. Moreover, he appears to have no need of God. If he were to direct his gaze at God, he might arrive at a different kind of comparison. He might see how poorly he embodies divine compassion and connectedness to all other beings.

The tax collector, in contrast, beats his breast and prays simply, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Focusing on God, he prays for openness to divine mercy, which has the power to transform his sinfulness.

It is likely that he finds himself in this degraded position of collecting taxes because there are no alternatives. One would only stoop to such a job when no other work could be found. Tax collectors were low-level functionaries with no bargaining power. If they extorted money beyond what was their due, it was out of desperation, to keep starvation at bay. Should the tax collector try to repent, there would be no way to repay the many passersby from whom he exacted extra money, so as he prays he offers no vow to make restitution. He knows that is impossible. All he can hope for is God’s merciful forgiveness.

The end of the parable is startling: It is the tax collector who is in right relation. He has sinned, but he knows and acknowledges it. He is acutely aware of his utter dependence on God. He does not compare himself to others, but seeks connectedness to them through their common bond of reliance on God’s mercy.

The parable seems to invite comparison of the two characters, and we are wont to side with the tax collector. In the very act of making comparisons that reflect unfavorably on the Pharisee, however, we may find ourselves caught up in the same judgmental attitude we despise in him. In truth, there is something of the Pharisee in us, as we so easily make comparisons, exalting ourselves by humiliating others. There is also something of the tax collector in us, who humbly recognizes his own weaknesses while opening himself to the source of all mercy. The parable invites us to leave aside all odious comparisons and to seek oneness with the incomparably Merciful One. From this stance comes right relation with all.

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