In this talk, Richard unpacks the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14), showing how Jesus affirmed a spirituality of imperfection:
With this parable, Jesus invites us to struggle with the contrast between a spirituality of perfection and what I’m calling a spirituality of imperfection. Notice the beginning lines: “Then he spoke this parable, to some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous and therefore despised others. ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector’” (Luke 18:9–10). Jesus, a consummate Jew, uses examples from his own culture and time. According to common definitions of the day, the Pharisees are the good guys and tax collectors are the bad guys. The tax collectors are those who have totally aligned with the Roman Empire, charging money to their own Jewish people, and giving it to the Empire. No one likes the tax collectors, and everyone looks up to the Pharisees. The Pharisees are simply religious people trying to obey the law, just like faithful Catholics or Bible-reading Protestants today. And as always, Jesus, with his nondual way of thinking, turns it all on its head.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people. Extortioners, adulterers, or even this poor tax collector here. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I possess’” (18:11–12). None of us would be so foolish as to state our spiritual credit so forthrightly, but we do feel it inside. We think: “I’m a good person. I don’t steal; I don’t cheat.” We’ve all fashioned our positive, superior self-images on why we’re right and why we’re good. In contrast, “The tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast, saying ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’” Jesus said, “This man went down to his house justified—rather than the other” (18:13–14).
This repositions the whole role of religion. Didn’t most of us think that it’s all a meritocracy? I certainly did! Many religious people think that it’s all a merit badge system—all achievement, accomplishment, performance, and perfection. The good people win and the bad people lose. Of course, once we cast anything as a win-lose scenario, the irony is that everybody loses. Why can’t people see that competitive games are not the way to go?
I’m convinced that Jesus’ good news is that God’s choice is always for the excluded one. Jesus learned this from his Jewish tradition: God always chooses the rejected son, the barren woman, the people enslaved in Egypt or exiled in Babylon. It’s not a winner’s script in the Bible—it’s a loser’s script. It’s a loser’s script where, ironically, everybody wins.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2007). Available as MP3 audio download.
Explore Further. . .
- Read writer David Benner on wholeness and divine perfection.
- Learn more about this year’s theme Nothing Stands Alone.
- Meet the team behind the Daily Meditations.
Image credit: Arthur Allen, Daily Meditations 9 (detail), 2022, photograph, France, used with permission. Katrina Lillian Sorrentino, Entelechy 8 (detail), 2022, photograph, Spain, used with permission. Belinda Rain, Frost (detail), 1972, California, public domain. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.
This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story.
Image inspiration: We pause to appreciate the seemingly insignificant and experience the awe of the simple and unexpected.
Story from Our Community:
In a way, we are perfect if we allow ourselves to accept that we are not perfect. Perfect in the eyes of God with great potential, but imperfect in that we are not going to get it right all the time. We will make mistakes. —J.E.B. K.
Prayer for our community:
God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough, because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.