by Rev. Robert J. Wagner
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. "Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly taught His disciples about prayer. As His disciples today, we take note of this, because it alerts us to the necessity of prayer in our own lives. This Sunday, we hear Jesus offer another teaching on prayer with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. However, in this parable, Jesus did not teach what to pray, like He did when He taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Instead, He showed them how to pray, that is, the importance of humility when we approach Our Almighty God.
In the parable, the Pharisee proudly enters the temple, bringing with him his good works. Jewish law only required fasting one day a week, yet he fasted twice. The law said he only had to pay tithes on some of his income, but he paid tithes on all of it. From the outside, he was a man of charity and faith. However, his heart is revealed in his prayer, which showed that his works did not flow from a love of God and neighbor, but instead trickled out of a heart frozen by pride. He was “convinced of his own righteousness.” He needed to tell God how much good he was doing, and in the process, he offered the tax collector as an example of how much worse others were doing trying to follow God’s laws. Sadly, the Pharisee’s prayer was not a conversation, but a monologue, and when prayer is not conversation, there is no room for conversion.
We are repulsed by the Pharisee’s pride. Yet given some reflection, we recognize how the same pride can be found in our actions and thoughts. We find it in our gossip, in our “venting” about others, and in the ease we have pointing out the faults of others compared to identifying our own. If pride sours our conversations and darkens our thoughts about others, it undoubtedly poisons our spiritual life and prayer. When our neighbor falls, pride says, “I’m a good person because I’m not like him,” instead of thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We see how it can tarnish both our relationship with our neighbors and our relationship with God.
Pride also causes us to approach God with a sense of entitlement. The Pharisee was comfortable — too comfortable, and in the wrong way — before God. There was no reverence or awe in the exchange. He speaks not as someone in need of God’s help, but as one who is doing fine all by himself. His attitude is not of someone who has joyfully received the unmerited gift of God’s love and Fatherhood, but as one sadly attempting to justify that he has somehow earned it.
We have to recognize our need for God’s mercy because only then will we receive it. We need to be like the tax collector, who kept his distance, lowered his eyes, and realized he was coming before the Source of all that is good, yet also the One Who judges us at our death. Yet in his reverence and awe, he still knew to approach God with confidence, for His mercy never fails. Humility helps us balance the knowledge of our sinfulness with the knowledge of God’s never-ending mercy. Both are necessary for holiness, because both are necessary for conversion.
When we go to pray, we are called to imitate the humble tax collector, recognizing Who we are talking to and what we ourselves need: forgiveness, healing, grace, gratitude. When we bring another into our prayer, let it not be a matter of belittling them or ourselves through comparison of gifts, but instead a matter of interceding for them, motivated by charity, or of praising God for both their unique gifts and our own. Such prayer is pure, heartfelt and efficacious.
Jesus desires that we know how to pray so that our efforts are not in vain, like the Pharisee, because He knows the importance of true prayer. It refreshes our hearts. It fills us with peace and joy. It allows us to receive God’s unconditional love, and it allows us to share this love with others in a powerful way. It makes us merciful. It saves our souls.
Jesus, thank you for teaching us how to pray.
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