In Luke’s gospel Jesus often sides with people living in complicated situations they find hard, almost impossible to get out of – tax collectors, prostitutes, widows, sinners like the prodigal son. They call out for God’s mercy, and Jesus shows them mercy.
A number of tax collectors appear in the gospels. There’s the tax collector in Luke’s account today, there’s Zachaeus the chief tax collector in Jericho. There’s also Mathew, the tax collector in Caphernaum, whom Jesus asked to follow him. There’s no evidence that Jesus asked all Matthew’s friends– also tax collectors– to leave their posts and give up the dirty profession they’re engaged in.
The chief tax collector Zachaeus promised a substantial gift to the poor after receiving Jesus into his house, but again there is no evidence he gave up his job as chief tax collector in Jericho. Nor did any of the tax collectors under him.
There’s no evidence the tax collector in the parable today did so either. Still, God’s mercy was at work in them.
We’re reading from Hosea these last two days, the prophet whose wife left him. If I read him right, as Hosea calls out to Israel to come back to God, he’s also calling out to his wife to come back. He seems aware she may not think it possible to come back, so he keeps inviting her. Come back to me. It’s mercy calling out.
We’re reading the parable about the tax collector praying in the back of the temple from Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 18, 9-14) Staying at a distance, eyes down, the tax collector says only a few words:“O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He recognizes his distance from God and calls for mercy.
The Pharisee’s prayer is so different, so full of himself. He sees no need for mercy. There’s nothing in him that needs redemption. He seems to ask only for applause and approval.
The tax collector asks only for mercy. His prayer is heard so shouldn’t we make it our own? Tax-collectors, widows and sinners stand closest to where all humanity stands. We all need God’s mercy. We come to God empty-handed.
“O God come to my assistance. O Lord make haste to help me.”
Call for God’s mercy, St. Paul of the Cross often counseled: “I wish you to remain in your horrible nothingness, knowing that you have nothing, can do nothing and know nothing. God doesn’t do anything for those who wish to be something; but one who is aware of his nothingness in truth, is ready. ‘If anyone thinks himself to be something, he deceives himself,’ said the Apostle, whose name I bear unworthily. (St. Paul of the Cross, Letter 1033)
“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”