30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 29, 1989
Luke 18: 9-14
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.
I'm traveling this weekend, so no formal new homily. Here's one from the archives.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector” (Luke 18: 10).
|The Pharisee and the Publican|
by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
This parable puzzled me when I was a boy. How could the prayer of a man who was evidently as conscientious as the Pharisee not be pleasing to God? It also must have stunned the people who heard it from Jesus. But it’s not about how many good deeds we perform for God. It’s about how we are saved.
The Pharisees, in Jesus’ time, were the most conscientious keepers of the Jewish religious laws. To all outward appearances, they were good men, model citizens and lovers of God and neighbor.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were scum. They betrayed their people by collecting taxes for the Romans. They often extorted fantastic sums in order to line their own pockets. The Pharisee accurately described them as grasping and crooked (18:11).
So, quite naturally, we expect the Pharisee to pray better than the tax collector; to be more pleasing to God. But when we hear the parables we always have to expect a surprise ending. Why the surprise here?
When we pray, the catechism used to tell us, we “lift up our minds and hearts to God to adore him, to thank him for his benefits, to ask his forgive-ness, and to beg of him all the graces we need for soul or body” (Baltimore Catechism No. 2, q. 304).
The Pharisee is reciting his own good deeds, praising himself, and despising his fellow man. He’s not really thanking God and certainly not asking for either help or forgiveness. He believes he’s doing just fine by himself, thank you, God.
The tax collector has no such opinion of himself. His prayer is as simple as can be: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In fact, St. Luke’s Greek doesn’t really say, “to me, a sinner,” just one of the many; but “to me, the sinner” (18:13), the only one or the greatest of all. This man knows he needs God’s help, and therefore he can ask for it and can receive it.
“This man went home justified but the other did not” (Luke 18:14). To be justified means to be made right with God, to be made holy, to be filled with grace, to be saved. Only a person who knows how much he needs God’s grace can be made holy by God’s forgiveness and healing and love. That’s why St. Paul could boast of his weaknesses: that the power of Christ might dwell in him (2 Cor 2:9).
It’s good for us to recall God’s blessings to us—our good deeds, our spiritual triumphs—as long as we give him the credit and recognize how frail and helpless we are in ourselves. Just as we did not bestow on our-selves our natural graces—our size and shape, our complexion, hair, eyes, even our talents—but we inherited them as gifts from our ancestors; so our spiritual gifts are God’s graces.
As for our many and repeated failings, at least they keep telling us that we need a savior. “O God, be merciful to us poor sinners.” And, thanks be to God, we have our Lord Jesus Christ, the very mercy of God, here in our midst today!