By David Zahl
This remarkable parable has only two characters: a Pharisee and a tax collector. It was told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” I thought we’d start with the second character, the tax collector. To explain who the tax collector is, what he would have meant to the people hearing the parable, I used to jump to Martin Scorsese’s mafiosos — extortionists, loan sharks. They were skimming off the top of this so-called tax they were collecting. But I think that comparison almost romanticizes it a little bit.
I think a better analogy would be a capo. This is fresh to me. Capos were Jewish prisoners who helped at the concentration camps. These camps needed so much administration that they had to enlist certain prisoners to help make it as “efficient” as possible. These capos would help, and in return, they were spared hard labor and physical abuse, and they received privileges like cigarettes and private rooms. They were detested. They were collaborators of the most egregious variety. And that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about men who were collaborating with an occupying force against their neighbors. They were villains.
It’s no wonder that this guy would come into the back of the temple. That he makes it in at all is kind of remarkable. He looks up and simply says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This is the great prayer this guy — well, Jesus — coins. It’s a cornerstone of the Christian faith, but I don’t want to talk about the tax collector as a portrait of villainy. I’m more interested in him as a portrait of desperation.
What is desperation? It is the feeling of being in such a bad situation that you will take any risk to change it. A desperate person is a dangerous person, because they’ll do whatever it takes to get what they want. A desperate person is unhinged and completely focused on their goal. Have you ever been desperate for something? I mean, I sometimes want to say I wish I was desperate for things the way my son is desperate for Legos. But I guess I am desperate for other things. Maybe you’ve known other people who are desperate, and who are older than 6.
If you want to go deep, we will go there, but let’s start out light, with the 1996 film Swingers — dating myself, I know. It’s not a movie about sex. It’s a movie about swing dancing and the revival of it that happened in the mid-’90s. People forget about it, but there was a revival of swing dancing in the mid-’90s. Everyone’s wearing zoot suits, and ska was a big deal, and everyone was doing the Lindy. This movie was filmed with a young Vince Vaughn and a young Jon Favreau. (Favreau has since directed all the Iron Man films.) Anyway, it contains what might be the most uncomfortable scene in all of ’90s cinema, and if you watched it, you know what I’m talking about.
These two guys, there may be on the lookout for “companionship,” shall we say, and they’ve gone out to a swing dance club and they’ve come home alone. The one played by Favreau, who’s clearly the less confident of the two, has met a young woman at the club. They hit it off and he’s excited, so when he gets home, he decides to just play it straight instead of waiting a couple of days like his friends.
We watch as he calls the girl and he gets the answering machine: “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.”
“Nikki, this is Mike. I met you tonight. I just called to say I had a great time, and you should call me. My number is 555” — beep. Cuts off.
He calls back: “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.” “Nikki, this is Mike again. I think your machine cut off my number, but you were still at the club when I left, so I knew I’d get your machine, but my number is” — beep.
Calls back: “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.”
“213-555-4679. Just want to leave my number. Didn’t want you to think that I was desperate. We should just hang out, see where it goes. No expectations. Thanks a lot. Bye.”
He hangs up, walks out of the frame, and immediately comes back to pick up the phone: “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.”
“I just got out of a six-year relationship. Okay, that should explain why I’m acting so weird. It’s not you. It’s me. Sorry. This is Mike.”
Immediately calls back: “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.”
“Hi, Nikki, this is Mikey. Just call me when you get in. I’m going to be up for a while, would rather speak to you in person. You think it’s over?”
Redial: “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.”
“Nikki. This is Mike. This just isn’t working out. I think you’re great. But maybe we should just take some time. It’s only been six months” — at which point Nikki picks up the phone: “Mike, don’t ever call me again.” Click.
Desperation, when it comes to love, is what we’re all trying to cover up. No one wants to be Mike. Everyone wants to be Nikki. I can’t keep track of how dating works in the modern world, but the way that you try not to reveal desperation or to risk rejection remains the same. As far as I can tell, these are the stages of a relationship today: we’re texting, we’re talking or hanging out, we’re together, or dating, basically.
It involves incremental levels of self-revelation, so that you do not expose yourself and get rejected. No one wants to be seen as desperate, and yet we are desperate for love. We’re not just desperate for love. I think we’re desperate for approval. A friend of mine’s father died a year ago, and he said, “I was desperate for my father to say four things to me, and I think a lot of children are. I wanted him to say, ‘I love you. I’m with you. I’m proud of you, and I’m sorry.’ I think I got about one and a half of those. And I wish I could see him now.”
We’re desperate for healing, including physical healing. Maybe you know someone who’s just enrolled in an experimental trial, and you know what’s going on there is desperation. Maybe you’re desperate for your child to be happy, to get it together and not need you so bad. Desperation springs up at the point when our control comes to an end.
And the truth is at that, as that silly excerpt from Swingers illustrates, desperation is ugly. In fact, it’s repulsive. Yet this is the way the world works. We spend a lot of time trying to hide our desperation, and not just in dating. I hear about students applying for jobs. First, they have to send an email — “Just checking in, to make sure you got my resume.” In other words, “Did you get my resume? I’m dying to know, please email me back.” Or in another context, “Just touching base to make sure you’re coming on Saturday night. Translation: “If you don’t come on Saturday night, it’s over.”
All of that’s the tax collector. But then there’s the Pharisee. He’s not so desperate. He’s upstanding. Look at what he does as he prays: he thanks God that he’s not like the tax collector, and then he says that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income back to the temple. And he’s probably not lying. He’s not inflating things. He is telling the truth. He pays the cost in his body for his devotion to God. He pays the cost with his wallet for his devotion to God.
And yet, as we know, his achievements are not all there is. In fact, he has fooled himself into believing he’s not desperate. He’s fooled himself into believing that he doesn’t really need much from God, and the fruit of that delusion in his life is not just superiority or self-righteousness, but contempt of other people, and that’s just as ugly as desperation.
What I’m driving at here is that desperation is a fact of life. It’s just a fact of life in a world where control is limited. It’s a fact of life in light of death. It’s a fact of life in light of a holy God. The truth is that we are all dependent. We’re all dependent on God for our well-being, whether we admit it or not. We are all, in some fashion or another, desperate. We go through periods when we’re blinded to that fact, but then we experience the truth that life is fragile. Or we experience that control is far more limited than we like to believe, and then we understand that there is a desperate component to our lives. Even when it looks like the opposite is true.
But back to the parable. What we see is not just desperation for approval or desperation for love or desperation for healing. The desperation is for justification because Jesus concludes by saying, this guy, the tax collector, went home justified before God. Justification — is that really on the list of things you feel you’re desperate for? Probably not. But think of it another way: it’s justification in the sense that you’re enough, that you’re OK, that you’re valuable, that you’re righteous, that you’re all right.
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, goes as far as to say that the obsession with righteousness, with sufficiency, is the normal human condition. In other words, we’re desperate not so much to be loved but to be lovable, to be valuable, to be worthy. And that, my friends, is where this parable starts to explode all our preconceptions, because Jesus declares that the one who is justified, the one who is enough, the one who is right with God, is the tax collector, the villain, not the hero. He is the one who goes home justified.
And the one who’s blind to his own desperation? We don’t find out what happened to him. He’s left to his own devices. But let’s be clear: This tax collector is not somehow justified by his villainy. That would be absurd. He’s not justified by his weakness or his humility. He is justified by God. You see, the tax collector brings nothing to the table. He brings nothing but open hands, which means he can receive what God wants to give him, which is everything. This is the glorious revelation that we see in this parable: sufficiency is a gift, not an achievement, given freely to those who don’t deserve it and yet at great cost to the Giver himself. God gave his only Son, who was crucified for our transgressions and raised for our justification.
Now, this is extraordinarily good news for desperate people. For the non-desperate, you’re out of luck. If you were desperate, well then, this is a supremely comforting parable. It tells us that your desperation is the window through which God arrives in your life. It also tells us that the extent to which you’re out of touch with your desperation will be the extent to which you are self-righteous and contemptuous. But your desperation is the window through which God arrives in life, because this is the God who himself was made desperate, who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We see desperation as the prelude to redemption.
I’ll give you a picture of this and then finish. In 1934, there was a 39-year-old man who had just been hospitalized for the fourth time in 15 months for alcoholism. He was sitting there extremely depressed in the hospital as friend after friend visited and tried to console him, but their presence seemed to just drag him down further into his own malaise. As he wrote, “My depression deepened unbearably, and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the very bottom of the pit. I still gagged badly at the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, ‘If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!’
“Suddenly, the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this is the God of the preachers!’ A great peace stole over me, and I thought, ‘No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and His world.’”
As some of you know, that man was Bill Wilson, and he went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous, a movement that now has more adherents than Chicago has residents, without any publicity or recruitment initiatives. It is a fellowship not of the self-satisfied or contemptuous but of the desperate. You see, people do not come to AA to be made a little better, and they do not come because the best people are doing it. They come because they are desperate. They are not ladies and gentlemen looking for a religion. They’re utterly desperate men and women in search of redemption. What AA gives is the power of “the God of the preachers,” as death stares them in the face. What AA gives them is life and hope.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying to you tonight that no matter where you are, no matter what kind of desperation you’re dealing with, if it’s the quiet kind or the acute kind, God is not like Nikki. He is not repulsed by your desperation. When you dial that number, he answers the call, and when he does, his message is simple: “I love you. I’m with you. I’m proud of you. And I’m sorry.”
David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries and serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.