Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
This week’s Gospel gives us the tax collector and the Pharisee: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This is the root of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” which the Eastern tradition urges us to pray constantly.
The other readings cast helpful light. Sirach tells us God is “not unduly partial toward the weak.” We can misread much of Luke’s Gospel, as if just being poor, or miserable, or a sinner, is enough to get you into heaven. Careful.
Rather, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds . . . and the Lord will not delay.” The point is not our wretchedness, but God’s action. The key is not just that we need salvation, but that he saves. That’s what prayer is all about, and that’s the difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee.
Paul’s words to Timothy nudge our parable in a different direction. Paul brags: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.”
The challenge is that, in some ways, the Pharisees are so very much like the saints. The reason Jesus talks so much about Pharisees is that they are not easy to identify. We can run from sanctity in the name of fleeing Pharisaism, and embrace Pharisaism in the name of sanctity. Pride is the hardest sin, because it looks so much like righteousness.
But in the second paragraph, Paul differentiates. “No one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them!” In the first sentence, Paul sounds his unique righteousness. But in the second sentence, he shows its real heart: he forgives.
Then, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed.” He preaches not himself, but Jesus Christ. Jesus works in him—so intimately that Paul repeats his, “Father, forgive them”—but Paul knows it is only Jesus who makes him holy, and so he preaches only Jesus.
Key to our parable is Luke’s introduction: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (or: counted the remainder of humanity as nothing). The point is not just that the Pharisee rejects the tax collector. The point is that he rejects everyone. There’s a fine line between being grateful for God’s work in your life (like Paul) and despising everyone else (like the Pharisee). Recognizing God’s work does mean knowing you’re special; it doesn’t mean being a Pharisee.
The Pharisee is pretty righteous: fasting twice a week and tithing on his whole income is way better than most of us. He’s right that humanity on the whole is “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” He’s right to oppose those vices. He’s right to thank God for saving him (though it’s interesting that he thanks God “that I am” not “that you have made me”). He’s right to give thanks, and to pray. He’s doing so many things right.
And Jesus condemns him: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.” How we should pray that we will go home justified, that we will not be counted among the Pharisees. How dangerous this accusation of Pharisaism is, since the one who accuses tends to be one! How narrow the way, how straight the gate, that Jesus preaches!
What should we be instead? Tax collectors? I don’t think that’s the point. Again, so much of the danger here is that the Pharisee is right about so many things.
But note that the tax collector, like the Pharisee, goes up to the temple to pray. He knows the sacred geography.
But where is his focus? The Pharisee looks at himself (“spoke this prayer to himself”) and at humanity (“not like the rest of humanity”) and at the tax collector (“or even like this tax collector”).
The tax collector would not raise his eyes to heaven, but prays to heaven, “O God, be merciful.” He looks to himself, not to commend himself, or pray to himself, but to “beat his breast” and call himself “a sinner.” His whole prayer—the whole parable—collapses if he is self-righteous, if he complacent in his sin. The point is not that he should be a tax collector. The point is that, unlike the Pharisee, he knows he needs to change.
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Jesus Prayer is the key: to go, no longer to the Temple, but to Him who replaces the Temple, and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” only location of my prayer, “have mercy on my a sinner.” To know always my sin, and his mercy. That is everything.
In what ways does your gaze shift from his abundant mercy to your self-justification?