Just as the temperature is measured scientifically with a thermometer; spirituality has a spiritual meter proven in the virtue of humility and Christian living. Can you remember another scene in the New Testament where God rejected the prayer of his people? I can’t guess rightly if there is.
Today we hear a shocking message: God rejecting the prayer of his people. The parable we hear today is one that is only found in St. Luke’s Gospel. Why is this so? Pharisees were Jews who formed an exclusive sect of men who wanted to do more than was required of the ordinary Jew of the day. They were men who felt that their fellow Jews were not fulfilling the Law to the extent that they should be, so they took on doing more, especially almsgiving, tithe, prayer, and fasting.
They fasted twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, even though the law only required people to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement. This was a reason for spiritual pride among the Pharisees. Today a Pharisee contrasted himself with the Tax collector. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. Because tax collectors worked for the pagan Romans, mixed up with them and constantly handled their unclean money they were said to be in a state of ritual uncleanliness- they were regarded as public sinners on the highway to hell.
The Gospel today objects to, and paints a bad portrait of the Pharisee because of the motive for their actions. This motive seems to be to glorify themselves and make themselves feel better than other people. Holiness is to discover that I’m a much bigger sinner than I ever thought I was! The closer I come to God, the more obvious the sin is. The Pharisee’s ego had so distorted his image of self that his very prayer was a lie.
As he stood in the Temple confidently sharing his self-deception with God he was sadly wasting his time and sinking deeper into sin. His prayer didn’t work; God rejected it. Humility is one of the greatest of all the virtues. The Pharisee, in his own estimation, saw himself as the perfect example of what a true Jewish believer should be.
The publican regarded himself as a failure. But God saw further again than either of them, and so, we are told, because he humbled himself, the publican returned home a better person before God, whereas the Pharisee did not. We might say that Christians also fall into two classes: those who are true Christians, and those who are Christian only in name, nominal Christians. But how to tell a true Christian from a nominal one poses quite a problem. For the true Christian, however good he, or she, be, is not yet perfect either. You may well ask then what, in God’s sight, is the quality which distinguishes the one from the other. Part of the answer lies in that story of the Pharisee and the publican, which paints a picture of hypocrisy contrasted with sincerity.
One of the ways that we tend to avoid accepting responsibility for our actions is to contrast ourselves with those whose actions appear to be worse than ours. The Pharisee thought: “Look at that man; he is a sinner and a tax collector. At least I’m better than him.” Is that any different than they thought, “Look at that man, he’s a drug addict? At least I’m better than him.” Christ’s disapproval of the Pharisee’s attitudes as an invitation to a discipleship that goes beyond conventional morality? This, to my mind, is the imaginative challenge that our Gospel poses. We can hardly imagine consciously bragging, comparing, and condemning so openly. So it’s easy to give ourselves a pass.
God is not concerned with guilt, He is concerned with mercy. So many times I have had people tell me how much they need the loving mercy of God. They are realists. We all need the mercy of God. As we come to a deeper understanding of all that God has done for us, we also come to a deeper understanding of how much we need His mercy and forgiveness. The greatest saints are people who see themselves as great sinners because they have a profound realization of the extent of God’s love for them and the many times they have not returned His love.
A true Christian, we might say, is one with an abiding sense of God’s presence, one who lives in the belief that God is present, not externally, not merely in nature or providence, but in his inmost heart, in his conscience. And this presence of God so lights his inner awareness, that he comes to accept naturally that all his thoughts, his motives, his wishes, his failings, are like an open book before almighty God; and he willingly accepts that this should be so.
He enthrones God in his conscience, and when in doubt he refers to him here as to a supreme authority, without trying to argue, or reason, or make excuses, or defend himself. As scripture tells us, “All things are open and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom one day we must give an account of ourselves” (Heb 4:13). The church-goer Christian, on the other hand, tries like the Pharisee, to have within himself an inner sanctuary, from which he would exclude even God himself.
And here he attempts to make himself ruler and judge, the one with sole contr over all his own actions. The Pharisee, then, did not really go to the Temple to pray. He went to tell God how well he was performing, what a good fellow he was at doing his own thing, and how confident he was that his observance of the details of the Law placed him on a level far above that of such moral outcasts as typified by the publican.
The Publican knew his place before God. God is the Creator, I am the creature. I am a sinner, Jesus is Saviour. Unlike the Pharisee, I have no right to compare myself to anyone else. All judgement is to be left to God. I can look at the most hardened criminal, and say “There, but for the grace of God”. I have no reason to boast whatever. I could have been born to any parents, in any country, at any time. I did not select my sexuality, the colour of my skin, or my religious beliefs. With total conviction, I can stand before God, and pray “Oh, God, be merciful to me a sinner.” For us there is a lesson here. Prayer is not word-driven. Pope Francis re-affirmed this fact. Prayer gets its power not from the number or cleverness of our words but from the sincerity of our hearts and the truth of our lives. You just can’t sing the words of the Halleluiah Chorus to the tune of Amazing Grace. It won’t work.
The first reading today from the Book of Sirach puts this into perspective for us. God listens to everyone, and he has no favorites. Except, that the people who suffer injustice, the oppressed, the poor, the needy, the humble seem to have a special voice that gets through to God faster and clearer.That voice does not have to be filtered through human pride and vanity. It rings clear.
In the Psalm today we hear that “when the just cry out, God hears them, continuing that same theme. In the reading from St. Paul to Timothy, we hear Paul at the end of his life, looking over what he has accomplished, and finding some satisfaction that he has done his best, that he has run a good race. He shows humility, however, not like the Pharisee in his prayer, by attributing his success to God’s work in him. His strength has come from God, and he looks forward to his reward in heaven.