Deacon Tony’s homily and reflections on the Gospel for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary time (Luke 18:9-14), on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the temple area.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray, one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.” “The Pharisee spoke this prayer ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity…or like this tax collector” But the tax collector stood off at a distance, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”
In this parable, Jesus is talking about the duplicitous attitude in some of us, as we approach God in prayer. It compares and contrasts our pride and humility in prayer.
All of us, at one time or another, can be that Pharisee, or that tax collector in our prayer lives. Pharisees were considered super believers, the zealously religious. They were a group of men who strictly follow the Old Testament, word for word, literally, not only taking it into their hearts, but also putting it all into practice. They were highly accepted and highly admired by the ordinary people of Jesus’ time.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs the people to obey and do everything the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees say. Historically, the Pharisees laid their lives down in defense of the faith. They were part of the Maccabean revolution (See 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees in the Old Testament), over 6,000 Pharisees died in the persecution by the Greek forces, who wanted to Hellenize the Jewish religion. When the Romans destroyed their city Jerusalem, and everything in it, it was the Pharisees who, single handedly, brought back Judaism and a belief in Yahweh. This happened just two hundred years before Jesus spoke this parable.
The tax collector is also a Jew praying in the temple area. Tax collectors were brokers working for the Roman government. They made money on other people’s money and misery. They were known for exploiting the people by overcharging tax fees. They were vicious and hated by the Jewish people. Jesus deliberately uses these two people, the pious Pharisee and the sinful Tax collector to highlight the different attitudes we have in prayer. Do we recognize ourselves in this parable? Jesus is taking this opportunity to teach us the attitude of the heart needed when approaching God. He is telling this parable specifically to those of us, who at times, are self-righteous and arrogant during prayer. Based on this parable the Catechism of the Catholic Churc teaches: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God.”
Jesus wants us to have a humble understanding of our sinfulness. Pope St. John Paul II said that “the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today” is “the restoration of a proper sense of sin.”
Here the Pharisee represents the self-satisfied, self-made man that does not need God. The Pharisee deceived himself into thinking that he was without sin. Instead of comparing himself to God’s perfection, he compared himself to the Tax collector’s imperfection. Jesus teaches us that by humility, recognition of our faults and forgetting the self, one can reach God. Jesus praises the tax collector because the man deeply and sincerely recognizes and acknowledges his sins. He knows that what he’s doing is cheating, and he admits to it.
Notice, both men are in the temple area and it’s implied that the Pharisee is standing right in the outer court. He is not afraid to get close to God’s presence. The tax collector stands far away. He is far off in the rear of the outer court of the temple.
The proud Pharisee sees himself as righteous and justified, whereas the tax collector is humble, beating his breast, a standard Jewish sign of repentance. By beating the breast, we say “I’m guilty for doing what I’ve done. I’m guilty for breaking the law. I’ve sinned against the Lord.” Jesus concludes the parable by saying: “I tell you; the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus tells this parable in the temple area. The people listening to this story would have been aware that in that temple was the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle, where God’s presence appeared. There were atoning sacrifices offered in the temple in Jesus’ day.
When we’re at mass we are in our temple, in the presence of our Lord in the Tabernacle. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We are called to approach this sacrificial table, humbly recognizing our weaknesses, our sinfulness, and His mercy. We come in full knowledge that He who loves us, gave His life for us, and has justified those who approach God in humility and contrition. Let us prepare our hearts to receive that loving mercy.