Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14.
AIM: To help the hearers trust in God=s mercy, not in their own achievements.
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, is said to have visited a prison one day. Each of the prisoners he spoke with told the king he was innocent: the victim of misunderstanding, prejudice, or simple injustice. Finally King Frederick stopped at the cell of an inmate who remained silent. I suppose you=re innocent too,@ Frederick remarked. ANo, sir,@ the man replied. AI=m guilty. I deserve to be here.@ Turning to the warden, the king said: AWarden, release this scoundrel at once before he corrupts all these fine, innocent people in here.@ What better example could we have of the words in our first reading: AThe prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds@?
The story could also serve as an introduction to the parable we have just heard in the gospel about the two men going into the Temple to pray. Both believed in the same God. One went home at peace with God. The other did not. Well sure, we think. Our image of the Pharisees is so negative that the story=s conclusion doesn=t surprise us. For Jesus= hearers, however, the conclusion was not only a surprise. It was deeply shocking. They knew that the Pharisees were deeply religious. The Pharisee in the story was no hypocrite. He really had done all the things he listed in his prayer.
The Jewish law enjoined fasting only once a year. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable fasted twice a week. Many things were exempt from the law of tithing. This Pharisee made no use of the exemption: he gave back to God, out of gratitude, ten percent of everything he received. The modern equivalent of the Pharisee in Jesus= story would be a Catholic who goes daily to Mass and Communion, performs many good works, and returns a full tithe of his or her income to Church and charity.
The tax collector, on the other hand, belonged to a class despised by all decent Jews in Jesus= day. Tax collectors worked for the hated Roman government of occupation. They used all kinds of shakedowns and protection rackets to extract money from people. Much of it went into their own pockets. For Jesus= hearers this tax collector was a public sinner on the road to hell. And like the prisoner who confessed to the Prussian king that he really was guilty, the tax collector knew that his bad reputation was well deserved. His visit to the Temple shows, however, that he still believes in God. Unable, like the Pharisee, to point in his prayer to any semblance of a good conduct record, he appeals simply to God=s mercy: AO God, be merciful to me, a sinner.@
Though both men believe in God, their image of God is quite different. The tax collector prays to a God of mercy. The Pharisee prays to a God who rewards good people like himself, and comes down hard on bad people like tax collectors. Jesus addressed the story, the gospel writer Luke tells us at the outset, Ato those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.@ The Pharisee=s image of God was wrong.
Wrong too was the Pharisee=s attitude. He measured himself not by God=s law, but by those around him. Measuring ourselves against others is always a mistake. If we see, like the Pharisee, that we are better, we become complacent and proud. If we see that we are worse, we can become discouraged. Comparisons with others are meaningless. If others have done better than we have, this may have been because they had advantages we never enjoyed. If they have done worse, this could be due to difficulties of which we have no conception. If you must measure yourself at all, compare yourself not with others, but with Jesus Christ. Instead of looking around at others, and looking down on those whom you consider bad people, place yourself beneath the cross of Jesus. Look up at the One who hangs there. Judged by his standard, we all fall short.
Like both men in Jesus= story, we have come into God=s house to pray, to worship. We want to go home reconciled with God and others, and at peace. To do so we must avoid two common mistakes. The first is thinking that we are so bad that God is angry with us and cannot forgive us. That is wrong. God never stops loving us. No matter how badly we have fallen, God is always ready to forgive. To receive his forgiveness, we need only say, with the tax collector: AO God be merciful to me, a sinner.@ If our sin was grave and deliberate, we need to receive God=s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance, or confession.
The second common mistake which keeps us from going home reconciled with God and at peace is thinking that we have a credit balance in some heavenly account book which God is bound to honor. That was how the Pharisee thought. God owes us nothing. We owe him everything. Does that mean that God is not generous? That there is no reward for all our efforts to be good? Of course not! God is unbelievably generous. And Jesus speaks of reward often in the gospels. To experience God=s generosity, however, we must stand before him with empty hands, appealing not to our deserving, but to his mercy.
That is what the tax collector did. Jesus gives us this story to help us do the same. Let me conclude by telling you what Pope Benedict says about these two men in his book, Jesus of Nazareth [pp. 61f]:
AThe Pharisee can boast considerable virtues; he tells God only about himself, and he thinks that he is praising God in praising himself. The tax collector knows that he has sinned, he knows he cannot boast before God, and he prays in full awareness of his debt to grace. [AGrace@ is the technical term for God=s freely given love, something we can never earn.] ... The real point is ... that there are two ways of relating to God and to oneself. The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not need God, because he does everything right by himself. He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous B what he does himself is enough.
AThe tax collector, by contrast, sees himself in the light of God. He has looked toward God, and in the process his eyes have been opened to see himself. So he knows that he needs God and that he lives by God=s goodness, which he can not force God to give him and which he cannot procure for himself. He knows that he needs mercy and so he will learn from God=s mercy to become merciful himself, and thereby to become like God. ... He will always need the gift of goodness, or forgiveness, but in receiving it he will always learn to give the gift to others.@
Happy are we if those words describe us: people who know we shall always need the gift of God=s goodness, and of his forgiveness; and if, in receiving these gifts we learn to pass them on to others. Let me conclude with a personal statement.
When I come to stand before God in judgment one day, I won=t say: ALord, I have celebrated twenty thousand Masses and preached at least as many homilies; I have spent ten thousand and more hours in the confessional bringing your mercy to the people you love beyond their imagining; I have written 15 books and hundreds of articles and book reviews.@ I won=t mention any of that. Instead I shall say one thing, and one thing only:
ALord, be merciful to me, a sinner.@