Jesus loves to tell stories with a surprising twist. He has a special penchant for uplifting underdogs.
In a parable about humility in Luke, chapter 18, Jesus tells a story about a really religious person and a tax collector.
His original listeners would've assumed the religious person would be the hero of the story because nobody liked tax collectors at the time. They were lumped right in there with sinners. The expression "tax collectors and sinners" is used eight times between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Upon hearing that Jesus was going to tell a story about a tax collector, an audible "ewww" probably would've washed across the faces of his hearers — as if they'd all smelled a skunk. Their thoughts would've been along the lines of, "Gross … a tax collector? I don't like tax collector stories. The local tax collector is always taking an extra cut of my money."
In Jesus' story, the religious person goes to pray. He begins his prayer with the classic line, "Thank you, God, that I am not like other people." While the sentence is so pompous it is almost comical, it's also relatable. I'd venture to guess we've all had a similar thought at least once (or twice) along the way. Perhaps after seeing a political sign in your neighbor's yard displaying a candidate for whom you'd never consider voting. Or when you watch a news story about someone convicted of a crime. "Thank you, God, that I'm not like other people."
Upon my first reading of the story, I found the religious person's prayer hilarious, and I thought he was acting like an egocentric buffoon. Then I realized that deep in my heart, if I'm honest, sometimes I have that same sort of pompous spirit. It was a convicting realization.
The religious fellow goes on to name a few specific groups of ill-repute. "Thank you, God, that I'm not like other people: robbers, evildoers, adulterers." Then, he adds a special dig toward the tax collector he sees in the distance. He concludes his prayer by describing his generosity and rule-following to God.
Even though he's over the top in his self-aggrandizement, it's fair to say this man is probably well-intentioned. He thinks that the key to life is having it all together. He wants God to know about his very good behavior.
The story continues. A tax collector is standing alone. Our underdog. We'll call him Skunky since everyone treats him like an odor-spraying rodent.
It's time for the element of surprise in Jesus' parable. The tax collector says only a few words, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." According to Jesus, this is the spiritual posture worth modeling. Jesus says we should all be more like Skunky.
The New Testament was first written in the Greek language, and the Greek word for sinner is hamartolos. It means "one who strays off the path," "one who is imperfect," and "one who misses the mark."
This is the tax collector's honest, prayerful, humble proclamation: "God, be merciful to me, one who misses the mark." His starting point is an admonition of imperfection. Jesus says that the tax collector has discerned the key to an authentic life of faith: freely, eagerly, and openly admitting that he is not perfect.
Feigning perfection is like jumping into a hamster wheel that will never stop spinning. It's a fruitless endeavor.
Embracing a posture of humility, on the other hand, is freeing. The reality of our shared imperfection is our great universalizer as human beings. It's something we all have in common. We all miss the mark. Every. Last. One. Of. Us. Nobody has it all figured out. Instead, we all get to spend our days learning, loving, and forgiving. But if we waste our energy puffing ourselves up, we'll miss out on all the opportunities around us grow and develop.
It's tempting to prove our worth — to provide God and everyone else with resumes of all the things we do well — to believe that our attempts at perfection will make us more lovable. But that all expends a lot of wasted energy, and according to the parable, Jesus isn't impressed by any of that. Instead, he offers a different option, and through it we are freed. Thanks be to God for the wisdom of the tax-collecting underdog.