Be Merciful for I am a Sinner

In the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gypsy woman Esmeralda walks into the Notre Dame cathedral and listens to the prayers of the rich people walking by. They pray for wealth, fame, and fortune.

She, in turn, sings a song called “God Bless the Outcasts,” in which she says, “I ask for nothing, I can get by, but there are so many less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and downtrod. I thought we all were children of God.”

The chorus follows, which begins with the prayer, “God bless the outcasts.”

With her song, Esmeralda, a non-Christian, reveals a depth of spiritual understanding that most of the Christians in the movie do not have.

In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Pharisee plays the role of a self-righteous, uncaring, religious leader. In his “prayer,” he reminds God of his moral superiority to those around him, including the tax collector, at whom he looks down his nose.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is a sinner who knows his own shortcomings. In fact, he is so overcome with his sins that he doesn’t even notice the Pharisee nearby; he is conscious only of his sin and of his need for forgiveness. His prayer, heart-felt and pure, is this: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It’s easy to have a feeling of moral superiority over our theological or political opponents, and it’s also easy to fall into the trap of “praying” in such a way that we praise ourselves and lambaste our adversaries. This parable reminds us of the absolute spiritual necessity of humility. It’s not that we pretend to be humble because that’s how God wants us to act. It’s that we really are humble, because we really are sinners in need of God’s mercy.

As prophetic Christians, we can’t afford to get so bogged down by feelings of guilt that we are unable to speak God’s word to the world. When we speak, we speak with the words and authority of God, but at the same time we remember that we are speaking to ourselves as well.