A remarkable thing about Holy Scripture is that it takes us into the very heart of the stories it tells. We not only meet people face to face, but we can feel their pain or joy, and sometimes sense their surprise or wonder. We hear the conversations as if we were there in person. When Jesus takes his closest disciples into the Mount of Transfiguration, we get to go along. When our Lord steals away to pray in agony in Gethsemane, we get to listen in as if we were there.

We can study the Bible through what I call “intimate imagination” – by projecting ourselves personally into what is going on, a silent participant in the drama. I’ve recently re-read the dramatic story of Moses before Pharaoh – the plagues, the king’s obstinacy, and the eventual exodus. I injected myself into a forbidden scene – standing right there with Moses and Pharaoh, an unseen witness to the drama.
I wasn’t surprised when Moses’ staff turned into a serpent, for the Lord had so instructed him, but I was surprised when the Egyptian magicians did the same thing. In fact I stepped back and gave wide berth to all the snakes! But I applaud-ed when “our” serpents swallowed up “their” serpents. Do you follow me? I learn the story by becoming part of it – intimate imagination.

I can even be present – of all places – in Pilate’s private chamber when he interrogates Jesus. What drama! And I can stand alongside St. John the Divine as he sees the heavens open and beholds the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I am awed! I feel unworthy to witness such mystery and revelation. Should I bow down and hide my face? In any event, I am there. That is what Scripture does for us.
But there is one story I have difficulty becoming part of, intimately anyway. When Jesus says in Lk. 18:10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector,” I have no problem imagining myself going along with them. But as the story unfolds I find myself uncomfortable as part of the scene.

I find myself backing away, still watching and listening, but not all that involved. In biblical scenes like these I like to stand alongside the participants – silent and unseen of course — and share the experience with them. But I am not comfort-able, either with the Pharisee or the tax collector. I stand back, chastened by what I see and hear.

The Pharisee is really a sick frog – poor chap – he supposes he is righteous when he is really self-righteous. “I thank God that I am not like others – extortioners, unjust, adulterers – or even as this tax collector,” he prayed – perhaps more to himself than to God. Then he tells God – or himself – how good he is. “I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” All of which was probably true. A good church member. The kind that pays the preacher so he can preach on the Pharisee and the publican!
Am I like the Pharisee? I’m inclined to sit this one out.

The tax collector is also a sick frog, but, unlike the Pharisee, he realizes his sickness. He is despised by his fellow Jews. Employed by a foreign power to collect — sometimes through brutal coercion — oppressive taxes from his own people, he was seen as an exploiter and a traitor. If anyone would walk away from a service at the temple justified before God it certainly would not be an odious publican – as the Jews would see it anyway.

Now we have one of those biblical “reversal of a reversal” in that it is the despicable publican who, unlike the Pharisee who “prayed thus with himself,” appears to be actually talking to God. But he doesn’t say much. Nothing about others. He seems unmindful of the Pharisee’s presence -– and of course he can’t see me standing in the wings, mind-boggled over what I’m witnessing. He doesn’t even approach the altar as did the Pharisee. He rather stands back, disinclined even to lift his eyes heavenward as temple visitors usually did. He even beats his breast in abject surrender.

His prayer is both riveting and disarming. He simply said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The translations do not get it quite right. He actually prayed, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” – as if he were the premier sinner, or the only sinner.

Jesus concludes the story with an amazing statement – one that tells us what religion is all about – “I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Justified! It is the word for salvation. It was the irreligious, unchurched, sinful, despised tax collector who was saved! The dutiful church member apparently wasn’t, Jesus went on to say what is equally riveting: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I stand bowed and with hat in hand before this story. It is too much for me. I cannot attain unto it. It is a story that says too much, far beyond where most of us are. This is not simply grace, it is extravagant grace, overwhelming grace, irrational grace. It is even irreligious. It could never have been born in Rome, or Constantinople, or Westminster. It was born in the heart of God, who is eager to show mercy….