"O God, be merciful to me a sinner."
Sunday Word: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102316.cfm
Early in my discernment towards priesthood I spent a few years in the Vincentian Fathers as a high school seminarian, novice, and first college seminarian. During the novitiate year, I clearly remember a monthly spiritual exercise we all were required to take part in. It was called, “Charity Schedule.” I hope we were all charitable outside of the “schedule” as well.
Now, the point of that monthly time was, when gathered in the Chapel for prayer, as we sat next to one of our fellow brothers, we slowly went through the pews, two by two, as we stood up. Then, in front of God and our fellow novices we were asked to name, out loud, three qualities we recognized as works of charity or complimentary traits in our brother. Likewise, after naming those positive traits, we would name three areas in which we felt our brother could yet grow. So, it was a kind exercise in fraternal correction, done in a spirit of true charity – at least our intentions were sincere.
The majority of us were only 18 or 19 at the time so we could not help but see things through those later adolescent eyes. Still, the concept was a good one. It was meant to be a potential way to grow in respect and trust for one another. That is, unless you were like the Pharisee in this Sunday’s Gospel - nothing to correct in him - the prayer of “Mr. Perfect.”
For the last several Sunday’s Jesus has given us a kind of mini- catechesis on prayer in the Gospels we’ve heard. He teaches us to pray with faith, even as small as a mustard seed (Lk 17: 5-10). That we must pray with gratitude in our heart, like the one leper who returned to Jesus for his healing (Lk 17: 11-19). That we must be persistent in our prayer like the widow who pleads before the heartless judge (Lk 18: 1-8) and today we hear that we must pray with humility before God, like the repentant tax collector in (Lk 18: 9-14). The stories Jesus told are rich with meaning and easy to remember through the characters presented.
Once again though, it presents a common trait of the Gospel writers as they nearly in all cases, would present the Pharisees in a negative light. Were none of them good and righteous in the best sense? They seem to be the constant bane of Jesus in his relationships with them. Yet, in fact they were likely closer to Jesus’ own teaching than distant from it.
The Pharisees were similar to our present day religious orders or lay societies. They were men who lived a kind of community life, attempting to support one another in the purity of living the Jewish faith. The population generally looked to them for both example and leadership. They dressed with certain dignity and cleanliness; they carried with them, attached to their outer garments, symbols of the Jewish faith – maybe we could say a kind of religious habit.
However, apparently enough of them became so enamored with their own position and obvious external signs of Jewish purity, that they misplaced the heart of the law they lived. In the laws of diet and cleanliness, Sabbath regulations, and many other burdensome legalities, and the near slavish following of it, they exaggerated the importance of such man made laws to the detriment of the sacred law of love, humility, and charity which God asked of his people in the original Covenant. I
It was that misplaced priority of importance that Jesus so railed against, which led to hypocrisy. They suffered from too much emphasis on external appearance which created a kind of spiritual blindness to the deep relationship of love that God was seeking. So we hear of their self-aggrandizement, their superior righteous attitude, and their quick judgement on those they felt were beneath their level of religious purity. We must know, however, that not all had fallen into this trap.
In the Gospel this Sunday we hear how far this sense of self-importance had gone for enough fo them as Jesus used one of them, in a general sense, to display the danger of their misguided spirituality. As the Pharisee in the Temple begins to pray, Jesus said he “spoke this prayer to himself.” Although he felt God would hear his prayer and reward him for being “such a good boy,” Jesus reminded us that his prayer was empty. Empty enough that God did not listen – the Pharisee only “spoke to himself.” His “prayer” was about everything he had done to make himself feel righteous.
By contrast an equally unpopular figure appears; a tax collector. Generally despised by the population for their greedy way of collecting taxes and the Roman occupiers they represented. Now, unlike the Pharisee, here’s one guy who couldn’t possibly recognize his sin. Yet, to all who heard this story for the first time, he became, like the Good Samaritan, the one who got it right!
Unlike the Pharisee, the self-complimentary perfectly religious, the tax collector’s prayer was heard by God. Why? - because his prayer was simple, deeply sincere, humble and truthful. His only desire, as he “stood off at a distance” from the Pharisee who stood and proudly proclaimed his goodness, the tax collector “would not even raise his eyes to heaven.” He prayed from his heart: “O God be merciful to me a sinner.” It wasn’t what he had done right, but how he prayed that mattered.
The tax collector recognized his sin and asked for nothing but God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus reminds us, “I tell you the latter (tax collector) went home justified, not the former” (Pharisee). To be justified means to be in right relationship with God; to be in proper Covenantal order and goodness before God. True humility is the key here it seems. Like the tax collector we are taught how to pray with honesty and humility. “God, this is who I am, with all my faults, sins, and blemishes. I haven’t been what you call me to be so I ask in all humility for your mercy, that I can start again.”
The tax collector didn’t grovel or think of himself as worthless. Yet, he was realistic and honest about his own sinfulness and accepted responsibility for his less than virtuous behavior. This is true conversion and a prayer that is heard and answered by God.
So this leaves us with rich lessons on prayer: pray with faith, no matter how small. Pray with gratitude in your heart for blessings received, begun primarily through the death and resurrection of Christ. Pray with persistence and don’t give up. Pray with humility and realism before the loving God of mercy and redemption.
Faith, Gratitude, Persistence, and Humilty. Every Eucharistic celebration contains these qualities in our participation. May God give us eyes and hearts to see this.
O God be merciful to us.
Almighty ever-living God
increase our faith, hope and charity,
and make us love what you command,
so that we may merit what you promise.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.
(Collect of Sunday)