Who doesn’t like an “attaboy!” when they do something good? It's the reason there are scholarship awards for the peeps as they head into college. “Attaboy!” stands behind all those accolades high achievers get throughout life — Rhode’s scholarships, purple hearts, Silver stars, gold statues, merit raises for school teachers, making partner in a big firm, getting re-elected (in any organization, at any level), and those pups who get those Good Canine Citizen things. “Attaboys!” reward the gracious, good, above-and-beyond behaviors we see in others. Good persons and dogs deserve good things.
The problem is that our vision of “good behavior” can get extremely narrow-minded, extremely near-sighted. We only are able to see the good in those who stand closest to us. Those far off become, if not “bad,” at least “other.” “Otherness” is perhaps the most insidious form of prejudice. Why? Because “otherness” makes close closed. “Otherness” disassociates our loved ones from outsiders and strangers. As soon as we identify some as “others,” the game is over. We have drawn up “us” vs. “them” battle-lines.
In the Gospel of Luke 18:9-14 the good-living, well-meaning Pharisee and the ne’r-do-well tax collector are set up as ideal types of the “acceptable” vs. the “other.” The contrast could not be sharper. The Pharisee examines himself, and finds no fault with himself. The tax collector lets God examine him, and throws himself on the bar of God's justice (receiving mercy as God does). Ironically, the Pharisee treats God as a debt collector and the Tax Collector, who IS a debt collector, treats God as a Savior.
The Pharisee lives a truly faithful life. He obeys the letter of the Law. He prays. He fasts. He tithes. He is a Pharisee — that is, an individual who has devoted his life to the study and practice of Torah law as it impacts everyday living for an observant Jew. But the Pharisee’s “prayer” was not a prayer at all. He did not come to God with a spirit that stood humbly before God in acknowledgment of an unmerited gift that only God could offer.
The only time true “prayer” was offered in this parable was by the tax collector. He did not articulate his gifts and graces, or his sins and shortcomings. This Tax Collector felt his failure, and knew without a doubt he stood in need of God’s forgiveness if he had any hope of redemption.
The surprise in this parable is, once again, one who has been classified by the “in crowd” as one of those who is “The Other.” An outsider. Someone everyone else considered a go-along-to-get-along government-droid. A tax-collector. Yet he addresses God firsthand and face first. This tax collector directly asks, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” No excuses. No digressions. No explanations. He confessed his all-too-human inadequacies to God, while seeking God’s forgiveness and acceptance.
Despite this sale happening in a supposedly art-savvy New York City, despite the cache of his name, Bansky (manning his little kiosk in disguise) only managed to sell eight original works during the course of a long, hard day on the sidewalk.
A secret unknown and unguessed by the rest of the world. That is the Kingdom of Heaven. Insight into that secret is what transforms self-serving into sacrificial service. Glimpsing that astounding new reality is what makes a prayerful, repentant tax collector. A tax collector is a debt collector, a tabulator, one who adds up debts. Yet in this parable, the tabulator is the one redeemed because he realizes that tabulating debts is sin. The Pharisee is also one who "tabulates" but not the debts of others. He tabulates points for himself. He tallies up his merit badges, his “Attaboys!” and declares himself deserving. The Pharisses are merit badge collectors, yet it is the tax collector who ends up wearing the "red badge of courage,” the evidence of his sin on his sleeve.
If we treat God as though God is a collector of points or will deal out favors like badges for all to see, then we insult the Creator. We cannot expect favors. God's love is not earned. And God’s justice is not vindictive or arbitrary. God is a God of love and mercy. Despite the trudging atrocities of his everyday life, the tax collector trusts that God is a God of love and mercy.
God is not in the business of collecting or bestowing favors. And prayer should be a conversation, not a status report. A request, not a list of bullet points. When we enter into prayer in the way of "proving" our righteousness, we in fact only prove our pride. We not only deceive others, but ourselves. True prayer is about giving up, not puffing up. Righteousness is a gift to be received, not a merit badge to be earned.
The tax collector treats God as a Just Judge, and flings himself upon the mercy of the court. The Pharisee treats God as a tax collector, a debt collector, and seeks to prove his status as PAID IN FULL. But only God can declare us PAID IN FULL. Not through merit badges but through God’s amazing grace as a Debt-Eliminator, and Jesus, the Great Debt-Eraser.
In the darkness of the midnight hour, do you hear the phone ringing, the debt collectors calling, and calling and calling? Or in the darkness of the midnight hour, can you hear the beautiful music?