In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This account is introduced as a parable by St. Luke, but it is not a comparison. It doesn’t begin, “The Kingdom of God is like two men going to the Temple to pray.” It is simply a story. One day, two men, one a Pharisee, the other, a tax collector, when to the Temple to pray. This is not what the kingdom of God is like. This is what the Kingdom of God is.
The Pharisee is confident in his ignorance. He is full of gratitude for what he has been spared, yet he is unaware that he still has some need. He is grateful, perhaps even pious, but chiefly he is satisfied. The tax collector is not grateful. He is impious. And he is dissatisfied, yet he is bold in his humility. He won’t lift his eyes to heaven, or stand near anyone else, but he issues God a command. He tells God what to do.
The ESV follows the King James at this point. It translates his command thus: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Almost all modern translations handle it in this way. It is not false, but it is a bit unfortunate. Because the command here translated “be merciful” is not the normal word for mercy. It is not the verb form of our word eleison. That would be ἐλεέω (eleeo). It is ἱλάσκομαι (hilaskomai). They are related words, but they are not the same word. Words have nuance in every case, but never do words pack so much as when they have been inspired and given by the Holy Spirit. So we ought to pay close attention.
The tax collector’s command could be translated, in a wooden way, like this: “O God, be propitiated to me the sinner.” We find a noun form of this particular word in the New Testament: ἱλαστήριον (hilastarion), that is, the “place of propitiation.” It is usually translated as “the mercy seat.” It refers to the place in the Holy of Holies, in the Temple, above the ark, where God promised to sit between sinners and the accusations against them. It was only approached directly one day a year, on the day of atonement, by the high priest, when it was sprinkled with the blood of the Sacrifice. But even when it was closed off from all human eyes, even the eyes of the priests who went in to offer incense, by the curtain, it was still the place where God was present for us, where God could be approached according to his grace and mercy. Prayers in the Temple were always directed toward the mercy seat.
This tax collector is a theologian. He exegetes the Temple. He is bold to command God because he knows who God is. He knows the promises, God’s true character, and he knows what the ἱλαστήριον (hilastarion) is for. I suspect this was as surprising to the Pharisees as the fact that he went home righteous and clean before God. The tax collector’s prayer is shaped by God’s promises, by what God has revealed of Himself. The Pharisee has come to the Temple to be seen praying. The tax collector has come because that is where God has promised to be in His mercy, where God makes Himself favorable toward the sons and daughters of Adam by the Blood that expiates sins from the sinner. The Pharisee prays in the way of pious sounding Rabbis. The tax collector prays in the way of Moses.
Theology matters. Ideas have consequences. The Pharisee is driven by his ideology. He is grateful and he is virtuous. He recognizes the many sorrows he has been spared in this life by avoiding vice and practicing virtue. He thinks he is preparing for the future life by being virtuous in this life.
He is not utterly without wisdom. There is a reward in virtue for this life. But he is without the wisdom that is needed. For he thinks he is looking at the future, but he is only looking at the present. He falsely assumes that things will continue this way. Because he has been clever in this life and has been fortunate, he vainly assumes that he is pleasing to God in himself. He must not have read the Psalter or the prophets! He goes home condemned, steadfast in his proud ignorance.
The tax collector has similar wisdom born of experience. He knows the deep sorrow of those who have wasted their lives, who have betrayed their loved ones, who have too many regrets. His life is empty. He knows that he cannot make up for what he has done. He is ashamed and he is afraid. In this, he has the mirror image of the Pharisee’s wisdom. They both recognize the sorrow of vice and the joy of virtue. But that alone, as demonstrated in the Pharisee, is not enough for what we so desperately need. That alone leads either to despair or to self-righteousness.
But the tax collector is a theologian. He has more. He has the wisdom that is bestowed by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. He knows what the ἱλαστήριον (hilastarion), the seat of propitiation, is for! He knows the promises, the history, the character of God revealed in His Word. The Pharisee says, “Thanks be to God for I am good.” The tax collector says, “Thanks be to God for He is good – and His mercy endureth forever.”
The tax collector is able to exegete the Temple in a way that befuddled the Pharisees because He recognizes God’s true character. God is merciful, gracious, desiring to save and rescue humanity. In this the tax collector is like Our Lord Himself. This is why and how Our Lord teaches with authority. He teaches as a Man, not as God, but as a Man who has seen God in His Word, and though they hate what He says they cannot dispute Him so they plot to kill Him unjustly.
If you would be saved, if you would be a child of God, a Theologian, then go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For the Christ has come not to call the righteous, but sinners. In this is all of Christian Theology, all of Moses, all of the Psalter, all of the Prophets, all of the New Testament, and all the wisdom of the Church.
Your God, O Christian, desires mercy. He has come to call sinners. The Temple veil is torn. The guards are stuck dumb. He is risen from the dead and His mercy sits in His risen Body and Blood given wherever He gathers His people gather in remembrance, that is in proclamation, of Him. For whenever you eat His Body and drink His Blood you proclaim His death, that is, you proclaim the propitiation and hope of sinners and you go home righteous.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.