THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Let us come before our God in humble prayer, let us acknowledge our sinfulness, and ask for God’s mercy ….
Lord Jesus, your hear the cry of the humble and the poor, Lord have mercy,
Christ Jesus, you alone justify the sinners, Christ have mercy,
Lord Jesus, you exalt those who humble themselves, Lord have mercy.
May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.
Sirach 35:12-14; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
In today's Gospel we have the strange scene between a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee - and he clearly has evidence to prove it - is the "good" person. He carefully keeps the Law of the Jews and the Commandments of God. He faithfully observes the obligations of a good Jew: he prays, he fasts, and he gives alms.
And yet, God is not happy with him. Why? Because he is basically a totally self-centered person. He says, "I thank you, God, that I am not like others, especially this terrible tax collector..." What he really is saying is: "God, you should be deeply grateful that you have someone like me (and there are not many of us), someone who is so faithful in following your commands..."
When he prays, fasts, give alms, it is not because he loves God (or the poor) and wants to serve God. It is because he loves himself; he is the centre of his whole existence. Even God is on the fringe. God should be so happy to have such a rare example like him. Especially when so many are like the tax collector.
The tax collector in the parable in today’s Gospel suffered from the loneliness caused by his sins. He worked for Rome, collecting money from his own people. He was a thief, demanding from the Jews more than the Romans would demand he pay them. He used the Roman guards as his means of enforcing his arbitrary decisions. The tax collector had many things. He was rich. But he was alone. He had no friends other than other tax collectors, people as despicable as he was. His people hated him. His family hated him. He hated himself. Surely God must hate him. So he slipped into the Temple and sincerely sought God's forgiveness. And God heard the cries of this abandoned one.
Now the Pharisee comes to the Temple, not to cry out for help, but to remind God of his goodness. He fasts. He pays tithes. He reminds God that he is not like so many others who are grasping and crooked and adulterous. The Pharisee has no sense of dependence on God. He is so full of himself that he doesn't recognize his own emptiness. He does not have enough sense to ask God to help him be a better person. He thinks he has everything. He leaves the Temple with nothing.
The Pharisee sinned because he did not recognize his dependence on God. Paul in the second reading, the orphan and widow in the first reading, the tax collector in the parable, all have a sense of total abandonment. They recognized their need for God. They ask God to fill their emptiness. They are justified, raised up to God by his gratuitous mercy.
We come before God not because we are so good, but because we are so empty. We recognize how our sins have left us isolated in our worlds. We have lost close friends because we have not been able to control our tongues. We have destroyed relationships when we have allowed fantasy to be confused with reality. We have not loved as we could love because we have tried loving ourselves instead of others. As a result there are times that we don't even like ourselves. So we come before the Lord, alone, abandoned by some whom we love, perhaps abandoned by our own self esteem. And we ask the Lord to hear our cries.
It is incidental whether the Pharisee or the tax collector is the one who exalts himself to in the sight of God. In today’s culture, Jesus would probably have someone like the tax collector exalt himself and despise others in his prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—do-gooders and church-going Pharisees. I may be greedy, dishonest, and adulterous, but I am grateful not to be a hypocrite like them.” The desire to exalt oneself can always find a reason—even one’s humility.
In other words, today we should turn the terms around to get at the original intention. The publicans of yesterday are the new Pharisees of today! Today the publican, the transgressor, says to God: "I thank you Lord, because I am not one of those believing Pharisees, hypocritical and intolerant, that worry about fasting, but in real life are worse than we are." Paradoxically, it seems as if there are those who pray like this: "I thank you, Lord, because I'm an atheist!"
Who says today: “I have no sins, I am sinless, and there is no sin at all. I don’t need God for my salvation, I will save myself. The confession is not for me, the recognizing of the sin is a kind of masochism and it’s psychologically unjustified”? Who is the Pharisee and who is a publican able to recognize his total dependence on God?
Celebrant: The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds. With confidence that God is with us, we humbly bring him our needs.
Celebrant: Father, You always hear the prayers of the lowly.
Aware of our sins, we still trust you.
Grant all we need, and keep us faithful.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.