Book of Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Second Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18; Gospel According to Saint Luke 18:9-14
Jesus’ famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple might seem like an exaggeration or a parody, even something outside the realm of possibility. Perhaps, in fact, it is based on real events that Jesus observed in the temple. In any case, how, we might ask, could a person be so openly arrogant as the religiously accepted Pharisee being described?
“Thank God I’m not like everyone else,” the Pharisee prays to himself, and not really to God. He goes on, “I am not grasping, crooked or adulterous, like this tax collector. Moreover, I fast and give alms.” “Well, good for you,” we might want to reply to the Pharisee’s self-satisfaction. “And what use have you for God?” we might also want to ask him.
Today’s Gospel parable might be comparable to a Catholic going to confession to receive Christ’s pardon in the sacrament and do nothing but talk about the sins of others, and his or her own good deeds. That would not be confession at all, but accusation of others and excusing of oneself.
In contrast, the tax collector, an outcast by his very work, gets the point of seeking God’s pardon. He readily accuses himself with eyes downcast, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This is all he says, just eight simple words in English and in the original Greek, only five words, and it is quite enough. The tax collector clearly has captured the essence of repentance and as Jesus says, “He went home from the temple justified,” whereas the Pharisee did not.
The tax collector in the parable is not a victim of poor self-image, but of realistic appraisal of himself as a sinner in need of God’s help. He does not even enumerate his sins, dwelling less on specifics and simply acknowledging that he is a sinner, longing to be forgiven, and to change his ways. This attitude wins a hearing before God’s throne as well as God’s pardon.
The tax collector’s attitude or approach to God should be ours as well. The reason we are being given this parable once again in the Sunday liturgy of the Eucharist is so that we might model our prayer on that of the tax collector. Who would ever call him or her self a saint? Certainly not the tax collector, who becomes a model for us as well.
In our Catholic tradition we do in fact enumerate sins we have committed when we celebrate the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. This enumerating is intended to help us call to mind where we have stayed from God’s path and it is to be accompanied by sincere sorrow for our sins and a willingness to do penance, essential features of God’s forgiveness in the sacrament. Our repentance is to include as well a resolve to amend, “avoid the near occasion of sin,” as it is often put, realizing at the same time we are likely to sin again, but called to fight against our sinful tendencies.
Redeemed in Jesus Christ, we are sinful creatures at the same time. Jesus came precisely to call to repentance all who sin; that is, those who know their brokenness and need for God’s help and who seek healing.
The “healthy,” usually understood to mean those who see no need for God or his saving grace, are much harder to reach, but never outside the realm of God’s help either. In fact both the spiritually healthy and the sick are ever in need of God’s grace, available to all.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus came to save the straying and lost sheep. In the Gospels it is the religious leaders, who considered themselves already saved, who are strongly rebuked by Jesus for their spiritual blindness. False pride filled their hearts, making it very difficult or impossible for the Lord to make headway in their lives. Neither recognizing their faults nor asking forgiveness caused them to be viewed by Jesus as blind guides.
We can learn from today’s familiar parable the lesson that God does not condone sin but also that God’s mercy and pardon are available to all those who seek forgiveness from God. The words of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” are the gauge by which we can hope in God’s pardon as well. So it is not a theoretical matter, but something very concrete: we must be ready and willing to forgive others if we hope to receive God’s pardon too.
Considering the quite different attitudes of the two men in the temple in the Gospel story today; one who is arrogant and the other humble, we should ask ourselves if we truly go into God’s presence with a sincere and humble demeanor or with self-righteousness and presumption? We can ask too if we readily accuse others and always excuse ourselves. We can ask if we are ever looking out for the faults of our neighbor without taking note of our own.
May the Lord help us in the depths of our being to have a humble and docile heart, to be able to judge ourselves, see our faults, and leave the judgment of others up to God and not to us, thereby making way for God to more easily act on our behalf, bringing pardon and healing to our lives.
May the Eucharist we celebrate help us to know ourselves better, as persons called into being by Love itself, that is, God. May God help us to be forgiving of others, more dependent on God, and humbler in God’s presence. We remember that the tax collector left the temple justified, that is, acceptable in God’s eye, because as Jesus clearly teaches: everyone who exalts him or her self shall be humbled, but the humble shall be exalted.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB