The “prayer” of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel is basically a monologue of self-congratulation. Four times he began with “I.” His ego blossoms into contempt for others. He speaks a word of thanks, but it is not for any gift that has been given. He congratulates himself for being better than others.
His words indicate that he believes it is his own deeds that make him righteous; that is, right-with-God. Insofar as he fails to give God any credit for his good deeds, he becomes self-righteous.
There is some Pharisee in us all. Like him, we consider ourselves religious people. Like him our motives for what we do and why we act are sometimes flawed. Ego enters. Pharisees endured flagrantly through the Inquisition in the Roman Catholic Church and through the Salem witch-hunts among Protestant Puritans. More currently, through killing us “infidels” among Muslim fundamentalists and through covering-up abusive clergy among our hierarchy. While my flaws may not be quite so extravagant, I still need to admit to them and work on them.
Pascal once observed, “People never do evil more completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”
On the other hand, the tax collector was a public sinner, a collaborating traitor to Israel and to Judaism. Reconciliation requires full restitution for what he took – impossible because he surely had spent some of it. He throws himself on God’s mercy. Lord be merciful to me a sinner.
The tax collector’s humble confession of guilt is a profession of faith, for God alone is the source of mercy. The tax collector clearly believes in the God of mercy. He leaves the temple justified and righteous.
There is also some tax collector in us all. We recall some embarrassing things we have done that we cannot undo. We stand before God at the beginning of Mass and acknowledge our sinfulness both “for what we have done and what we have failed to do.”
Humility includes the spiritual maturity to correctly assess ourselves. Who am I? I am not God. I have no business playing God. On the other hand, I am not “junk.” Humility is truth: the awareness of both our limitations and our blessings; acceptance of who we are not as well as who we are.
I love the brief summary of today’s Gospel: two men went up to the temple to pray - one didn’t, one did.
Recognizing and acknowledging our shortfalls and asking for mercy somehow joins each of us with one another. Ten years of experience as a retreat director taught me a spiritual life lesson. When groups arrived, one of the first tasks was to help the retreatants to feel comfortable with one another so that we were able to share our thoughts. We employed “ice-breakers” – a perfect phrase for the task. Most groups who came were composed of people who were leaders: parish councils, faculties from grade school to university, cursillo groups and administrative groups. Icebreakers worked well.
However, I discovered – in a eureka moment - that one kind of group needed no icebreaker. The reason: they did not come as leaders. These were groups in alcohol and drug programs; they were in lifelong recovery. They freely admitted their weakness and inability to heal themselves. These were people who had been humbled by their disease and remained humble. Many were as talented and intelligent as anyone in this worship space. They recognized their common gift: sobriety. What they had in common was more valuable than their many and varied other gifts. They bonded as a result of that recognition and gratitude for sobriety and the 12 steps that led to it. They needed no icebreaker; they bonded immediately. I learned this important truth: we bond more easily in being united in our weakness than in our strength. Being in the same boat bonds. Being weak and vulnerable together results in bonding more closely than the bonding in being in a leadership group.
I shall never forget what a private retreatment, not part of the sobriety retreat, but was present, “observing” them – for the want of a better word - and lacked bonding in her own life - said to me in an air of admiration: “I almost wish I were an alcoholic.” No further comment is needed.
What a lesson for us all in our common sinfulness and the sure gift of divine mercy that we have available to us.
Just before we approach the table today, we will pray with the words of the Roman Centurion, “O Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” If there is to be a change in liturgy, I would suggest that the prayer of the tax collector in today’s Gospel be substituted: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is an attitude that Jesus himself tells us “makes us right” before God.