The Justification of the Tax Collector

by Alexei Laushkin

We face limitations. Life is full of them. Limitations on our job, limitations of our resources, constraints on our time. Limitations are a central feature of life. We feel the constraint on our time and the weight of our responsibilities.

And in many ways this is a very very good thing, but at times it can lead to a sort of hardness of heart. The story of the tax collector is instructive.  Consider Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Tax collectors were despised in Israel. They were symbols of oppression and the means by which Rome robbed Israel of its nationhood and the people of God of their dignity.  They were a constant reminder that Israel had no true king and was beholden to the nations. A daily reminder of how far they had fallen since King David.

Tax collector and sinner these were synonymous terms.

Tax collectors were betraying God. That’s how the people viewed them. Betraying the people. Imagine what this man must have felt, being a faithful child of God and yet being in a profession that put him squarely outside the camp of God’s people.

Yet Jesus says this man is justified.

This tax collector trapped by his circumstances is justified. Why is that?

Consider the heart of this man. He knows what he is compelled to do and it bothers his conscience, it trouble his heart. He cries out to God, have mercy, have mercy on me a sinner. 

Mercy Lord, mercy.

We often confuse the commands of scripture. We hear the story of the good Samaritan. We think that to truly do a just act requires me to bandage every wound, payout every expense, do everything in my power regardless of its impact, than I’ll be as holy as the good Samaritan. But when happens when we are constrained like the tax collector?

Not the sort of constraint of pride that led one man to bypass the injured man. Nor the constraint of disgust that prevented the other man from helping his brother. But the real constraint of time and resources and other good things that we are responsible for. What does scripture say about us?

The cry of the tax collector is a more appropriate model. The tax collector knew he was constrained to do what his heart did not want to do, and he cried out to God. He said Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

This is instructive. The tax collector had a soft heart. That’s to be our lived reality. A softness of heart, a tenderness of spirit, to take in the humanity of the circumstance before us.

On a recent visit to Auschwitz Pope Francis was asked what he was hoping for in terms of his time there. And he said something very constructive and simple. His reply- the grace to shed tears. In light of the circumstance he wanted the softness of heart to be present.

That’s the sort of life we are asked to cultivate. The life of presence.

One of the great challenges of living in a secularized age, is the lack of humanity we often experience. The rush of time, the pull on the inner individual, the slow death of feeling less and less human. Time that prevents us from just being, let alone time that never allows us to be as God calls us to be. A loving and compassionate people, regardless of our station and ability to help.

That’s what the tax collector teaches us. He teaches us to be troubled when we are doing something that is beyond our ability to control or even do. To take the time to be softhearted.

Repentance for the tax collector didn’t mean giving up his job, it meant living into the reality of the brokenness of his experiences and finding the grace and love of God that was much closer to him than his fellow pharisee. 

The Lord enables us to thrive in our circumstances by depending more fully on him, but a good start and a good check up for us is simply are we responding  well to what is truly before us. Are we striving more fully to adapt the heart and compassion of God to close friends and neighbors in need or circumstance that are unjust but beyond our control. For wherever we find ourselves, the cry of the heart to say, Lord I know this is wrong but I have no other out, please have mercy, that cry is a surer place for our hearts and our lives to dwell.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own.