Prayer is a frequent theme throughout the Gospels. Again and again, we find Jesus speaking to His followers about the importance of prayer, styles of prayer. He even leaves His disciples a model of prayer the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer.”
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus continues His teaching on prayer with a parable addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” The key to reading the parable correctly lies in this initial statement. The parable is a contrast between two very different spiritual attitudes: self-righteousness and the humility that comes from honest self-recognition.
It is no accident that the first character we encounter is a Pharisee. In the Lord’s time, Pharisees by and large believed themselves to be spiritually better than everyone else. They trusted in themselves, in their religious accomplishments, as the basis of their righteousness in God’s sight. Their conviction was that they saved themselves; therefore, they did not need God’s forgiveness. Thus, the Pharisee in the parable the poster boy of self-righteousness lacked any sense of sin. He may not have been “greedy, dishonest, adulterous,” but he is proud, conceited, boastful and judgmental. There is plenty in his life that needs contrition and confession.
The paradox is that the Pharisee prides himself on not being “like the rest of humanity.” In saying this, though, the Pharisee separates himself from the Lord Jesus, who, by His baptism, deliberately identifies Himself with sinners. In fact, Jesus has come to save only those who acknowledge their sinfulness and their inability to save themselves.
Enter now the other character in the parable: the tax collector one of many who appear in the Gospels. The gravity of the tax collectors’ sinfulness is offset by their willingness to listen to the Gospel and to welcome Jesus into their homes. They remain receptive, contrite and humble. They are honest sinners.
St. Luke portrays this tax collector in the light of other figures in his Gospel lepers and the friends of Jesus at Calvary. All of them stand off at a distance a sign of humility and reverence. The tax collector refuses even to raise his eyes to heaven, signifying his shame and repentance. All he can do is hope for a mercy and forgiveness that he did not merit. Because of this spiritual attitude, the tax collector truly prayed, while the Pharisee, on the other hand, sought to inform God how good he already was.
Jesus’s words remind us that God’s relationship with us is not a matter of listing our actions in terms of good versus evil. Whoever engages in a process of calculation when dealing with God runs the risk of coming up with the wrong result. God alone can tell who is close to Him. The judgment spoken by Jesus certainly means that the Pharisaic attitude is the wrong way to approach God; it is the humble and penitent recognition of one’s sinful condition that gains a person access to the Lord. The key to spiritual growth is the honest admission that we are all like the tax collector: we all need God’s mercy, for we all have sinned. As Jesus tells us, it is this humble self-acknowledgment, and the consequent turning to the Lord that follows from it, that wins for us the grace of being exalted.
Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)