Your face in the story

Reflections in the Fall
(photo by Martin Malina, 19 October 2022 over the Niagara River, Canada/USA border)

I’m not the only one who has felt the weight of the world with bad news coming from all quarters. It seems it hasn’t gotten any easier for many people in a world where precious little makes any sense at all: How do we catch a break, fall into a bit of luck, experience a miracle?

In other words, how do we find the grace of God?

Indeed, we often yearn and long for grace during tough times when things aren’t going well. Maybe these days you find yourself in a rough patch, for whatever reason.

This parable[1] gives us a clue to how we find and discover that grace. But only if we bring this parable closer to our lives. 

We are tempted, I think, to keep this story at arm’s length. It’s a parable, after all, about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray—and no one in this room is a tax collector nor a Pharisee; and we are not in a temple. So, it’s easy to make it a heady story about people in history with whom we have little or no connection. Therefore the story has little effect on our lives.

And yet Christians throughout the ages have resisted this objectification of the story, and they have sought to bring it closer to their own, personal lives. Today, over two thousand years after Jesus first told this parable, we bring this story close to our hearts, which is what Jesus would have us do I believe, by seeing our face in both the tax collector and the Pharisee. 

When medieval cathedrals and churches across Europe were built, scenes from the Gospels were often depicted in artwork on the ceilings and walls. This art was called a fresco.

When a cathedral or local church was being frescoed, a painter would come to town to a meeting of those who decided what stories from the bible would be painted. 

But the meeting also decided who would be the subjects for the paintings that were being commissioned for the church’s walls and ceilings. Whom would the painter use for their artistic models?

Most often, the painter wandered the local streets, interacted with the villagers, and decided whose faces they might portray. One day you might go to church and find yourself in a fresco listening to Jesus preach. Maybe your face would represent one of the disciples, or one of the women who cared for Jesus. Perhaps one of your children would be listening to Jesus teach. In any case, you would be placed right in the story of the Gospel; your face would actually be central to the story.[2]

Sometimes we are the Pharisee. And we have to confess that we have been conditioned in our upbringing and culture to compare and compete, like the Pharisee does in the Gospel. And so we may use unkind, ungenerous and condescending words about people who are less fortunate than we are, who are very different from us. We are the Pharisee whenever we comfort ourselves by pointing a finger in judgement at the homeless, the working poor, the struggling youth, the refugee, the newcomer to Canada, the racialized and two-spirited, LGTBQIA+. How do we feel when we see our face as the face of the Pharisee judging the tax collector of today?

Maybe like me you, too, have been taught that bit of competitive wisdom as a child when you learned this rhyme: “Good, better, best. Never stop to rest. Until your good is better. And your better, best.” Most of us, I gather, have a Pharisee lurking within us, ready and willing to step over someone else in order to get ahead.

At the start I asked how we find the grace we so long for in our lives. We must recall the purpose of the parables is first to dislodge us from our comfort zones and knee-jerk impressions. That’s why and how Jesus told these stories in the first place. When the proverbial rug is pulled from underneath us, then we arrive at a startling conclusion: 

The only way out—out of your bind, out of your predicament, out of your particular suffering whatever it may be—the only way out is the way through. For example, the only way out of grief is the way through it. We cannot spiritually bypass the rough patches.

Jesus concludes this parable with the words: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3] How do we arrive at this authentic humility? How do we humble ourselves? And so, find grace?

It is first to confess and weep over what the Pharisee in us does and says. And this is not easy. But the only way out is the way through. The only way out of our pride and our judgement is to honestly own our own part in and contribution to the problem. 

To confess the ills of our competitive and dog-eat-dog mindset is the first step to open the heart and to receive the grace of God. Because when we are in competition, we are not in love. When we compete, we can’t get to love because we are looking for new ways to dominate. 

But God does not deal with us like this.

Then we see our face in the face of the tax collector, too. The tax collector has lost the privilege of his reputation and standing in society. You could say he has nothing left to lose. He has come to the point of recognizing that he didn’t attract God’s favour by the strength of his persona, his ego and hisinflated self-righteousness.

Article Four in the Augsburg Confession, written down in the sixteenth century during the Protestant Reformation, articulates the central, Lutheran doctrine of Justification. We are made right, Martin Luther claimed, we are justified before God not by anything we can do, not by our works and efforts to be right. But we are made right by the grace of God alone.

Martin Luther interpreted the bible, even difficult passages in scripture, by using the measure of God’s love and grace. In other words, how and where is God’s love demonstrated in a passage of scripture? When we acknowledge our face in the face of the tax collector, we know we are on a journey with God that never ends. 

We come regularly into the presence of God knowing that we can only go on because God is a forgiving, loving God who makes something holy out of our mistakes, our suffering, our not knowing all the answers. God doesn’t compare us with others. God doesn’t say to us, “Look over there at that good person who has it all together – be like them!” Rather, we experience an all-embracing God who sees and loves the divine image in each one of us.

The Psalmist sings a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord. Because now the Psalmist knows of the promise of God to forgive always. “Happy are they whose strength is in you,” the Psalmist prays, “whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”[4]

We are never completely rid of the Pharisee in us, as long as we inhabit this earthly existence. But perhaps on the journey, the pilgrims’ way, each time we are aware of the pain we cause on ourselves and others and come to confess this, we also become more and more strengthened by the reality of God’s grace to carry on, with hope and joy.

[1] Luke 18:9-14

[2] Richard Rohr, “An Ordinary Prayer” Daily Meditations (, 7 October 2022).

[3] Luke 18:14

[4] Psalm 84:1-7

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