By: Fr. James Gross
“Two people went up to the Temple area to pray.” We think we know this story backwards and forwards. The good guy is rewarded, and the bad guy gets his comeuppance. That’s about all there is to it. But far more is going on than meets the eye. As so often happens in the teachings of Jesus, each of us here and now resembles one of these two men. Only by examining them will we understand what the Lord is asking of us.
First of all, neither man represents his entire class. We know well that stereotypes only communicate part of the story, and that life is never so cut and dried. Secondly, neither man was lying as he spoke his prayer: the Pharisee really was benevolent and the tax collector really was a crook. But only one of the two came home justified. A quick character study will shed some light on this.
For the Jews of this time, tax collectors were social pariahs. For one thing, they were a visible reminder of the Roman Empire’s oppressive reign over Israel. Secondly, many tax collectors employed unethical means. Corrupt tax collectors often charged an amount higher than the tax burden for a given household so that they could tuck away the leftovers, propelling them into fat city. If anyone offered resistance, the tax collector could threaten swift action by some of the fiercest soldiers on the planet.
One day, his conscience getting the better of him, the tax collector sees the error of his ways. All he can muster in pleading his case is one sentence: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” To the tax collector, God’s holiness is a burning flame which inclines him to keep his distance from the altar and keep his head down. His actions are reminiscent of what happened at Mount Sinai. When God displayed His glory on the mountaintop, the Israelites told Moses, “You go up there for us. God’s majesty is a sight so great to bear that we’re not even approaching this mountain, lest we die.” (I’d like to claim that is the same reason we Catholics love to sit in the back pews, but I have my doubts about that.)
When a man prays alone, he does not pose or pretend: his whole heart is revealed. See how valuable one single act of humility can be! Jesus hated the tax collector’s lifestyle, but he loved that he had a soul open to God. The Pharisee was like a cold hilltop on which no flowers grew, but the tax collector was a valley that could hold the flowing stream of God’s mercy. His was the prayer that pierced the clouds.
A number of us at St. Anthony’s are conducting a study of the book Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Fr. Michael Gaitley. I’d like to share something from that program that was called to my mind by the tax collector in today’s Gospel. Fr. Gaitley quotes several saints and spiritual writers as saying that the love of the Sacred Heart of Christ is as a raging fire that longs to consume our sins, if only we come to him. Here are a couple of examples of revelations Jesus gave to them: “I am love! My heart can no longer contain its devouring flames. I love souls so dearly…my heart is burning with desire to attract souls to itself in order to forgive them.” And another: “When you give me your sins, you give me the joy of being your Savior!” A part of us may want to stay away from the Lord, mistakenly thinking that we are too far gone, and are beyond redemption. What an amazing thought that our very sins, when cast into the furnace of Jesus’ heart, actually give him rest and joy!
It is perplexing, though, that the Pharisee in this parable turns from a hero into a villain. Pharisees were a subset of Jews who invested much time and effort into observing the Law of Moses. They were the “reliable” ones—the people who did what needed doing. And among them, the man in this Gospel is exemplary, the Billy Graham of the Pharisees. (Kids, ask your parents after Mass to tell you about Billy Graham) I think of the Pharisee at prayer, not with his hands piously folded, but holding a clipboard and a pen. “God says we should keep the Commandments and stay out of trouble? Check. We should give 10% of what we make? Check. We should fast? I’ll do you one better; I’ll fast twice a week because there’s some deadbeat out there who isn’t doing his share.”
For all his zeal and productivity, the Pharisee hides an internal spiritual illness. He has fallen into a trap. No matter what mask he wears, he cannot conceal himself from God, who sees what’s in the depths of our hearts. Let’s look at what specifically is going on.
Obviously humility is lacking. The heart that is not humble cannot arrive at solidarity with one’s fellow man through prayer, but instead tends toward disdain and condemnation. Only with the illusion of one’s own innocence could the Pharisee scornfully shake his finger at the world. There is also the problem of pride. “I” was the Pharisee’s favorite word in every sentence he uttered. He regarded God as a corporation in which he’d earned so many shares of stock that the boss eventually had to offer him a seat on the Board of Directors. And this leads to the deepest symptom of all.
This particular Pharisee broadcast an aura of composure, stability, and excellence. But deep down, he was sad and insecure. The man did not know that he was loved! In his eyes, God was vengeful, ruthless, exacting. The man felt he had to claw his way up and justify his station: one false move would get him thrown out on his ear, and the door would close and lock behind him.
Let me ask you; who is God to you? And who are you in His eyes? Are you someone whom He rejoiced to create, and in whom He takes delight? Do you know that you are loved? Will you let Christ’s love enter in to the most hidden recesses of your house?
As Catholics we learn early on that our faith would be an empty exercise without the cross. Jesus’ paschal mystery (his suffering, death, and resurrection) unleashed a never-ending fountain of mercy for sinners. Think of how many contexts in His Church that God communicates His mercy to us: the baptismal font, the altar of sacrifice, the confessional, the Word of God proclaimed, His praises lifted up in song, the cup of cold water given to a brother or sister in need. And what about the Jubilee Year of mercy that we are finishing, and the way this observance has brought the mercy of God to the forefront?
So, if the humble are the ones to be exalted, how do we square this with the words of St. Paul today? In today’s second reading, he sounds a little haughty. “Look at what I’ve done! I’ve finished the race; I’ve kept the faith.” But from start to finish in his writings, Jesus was the first name on Paul’s lips. Jesus received the credit for every good work Paul was able to perform. Consider the following passage with which I will close today, from one of his letters to the Church in Corinth, and decide if an arrogant man could write this and mean it: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.”