The original hearers of today’s Gospel parable were probably puzzled and shocked when they heard it. Why should a tax – collector be justified and the Pharisee not? The Pharisee was a member of one of the most respected groups in Jewish society at that time. He did everything he was supposed to do as a devout Jew and even more. He went into the Temple with a list of his virtues, to remind God that he followed all the moral prescriptions of the Law, fasted, and tithed more than was required to the Temple Treasury.
The problem was that his heart was filled with false pride and judgment of others. He saw himself as righteous. He did not acknowledge his need for God. The tax collector, on the other hand, was considered to be no better than a common thief. He probably hadn’t visited the Temple – or even seen the inside of a Synagogue in years. He was a civil servant of the Roman Government and was considered by the Jews to be a traitor: he was hated by the Jews.
He entered the synagogue, sat in the lowest place, and offered this simple humble prayer: “God be merciful to me a sinner”. Why did God accept the tax collector’s prayer? It was simply because he admitted that he was a sinner and asked God for mercy. He was “REPENTANT”. The Pharisee was proud. He resisted the idea that he needed to change his ways; the tax collector humbly embraced it!
Jesus told this story to a mixed audience of ordinary people. Among the group, there may have been a few tax collectors and a few Pharisees. Jesus’ listeners understood what He was saying – His hearers may have been stunned by His conclusion; in the Semite tradition, justification came from the observance of the Old Testament law.
So much of Saint Luke’s Gospel is a plea for humility and lowliness – to be the “ANAWIM” (“the poor in spirit”). In the first reading from Sirach, we hear the ancient axiom: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor”. Jesus was saying in today’s Gospel that those who emerge in a favorable light are sinners and outlaws who are humble. They know that they have a need for God.
Humility then is not a matter of bowed heads and lowered eyes.
Humility is not a refusal to accept a compliment.
Humility is not being silent in the face of injustice.
Humility is not a low opinion of oneself and a poor sense of self-worth.
Humility, as Saint Thomas Aquinas says is “TRUTH”.
The Gospel today calls us to humility – to be poor in spirit – to admit that we need God’s healing and forgiveness because we are poor without it.
The readings this weekend remind us that “The Lord hears the cry of the poor”. And who are the poor? We are all called to be poor! The poor are those who rely totally on God. They know that without Him – they have nothing. They do not worry about power or influence because they realize that God is not impressed with wealth, status, or external religious practices performed in the hope that others will see and be impressed. Rather, God’s justice and mercy are extended to all those who approach Him with loving humility seeking only His mercy, His wisdom, and His forgiveness.
All of us are called to be poor: to admit that we are nothing without God. That’s what Paul did. His boast was not in his own doing but he admitted only to be used by God. His words are truly a cry from the depths of his being – a cry for God’s mercy and grace.
In today’s parable, Jesus gives us the facts about sin and sinners. Quite simply, Jesus reminds us that each of us can and does commit sin. Each of us, (like the tax collector in the parable) needs to admit that we are sinners and need to seek God’s mercy.
In humility when we submit ourselves to the Sacrament of Penance and sincerely admit from our hearts what we have done, God offers us complete forgiveness. Our prayer must be – over and over again – the prayer of the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”.
As we look deep within ourselves to the part of us that is poor – the part that is sinful and hurting – we can let that part surface and be forgiven. If we are honest with ourselves and with God, we will begin to know that we are poor and that we are always in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Jesus ended the parable pointing out that in the life to come, situations will be reversed. The humble, those willing to admit that they are sinners, will be exalted, while the self-righteous will be humbled. May we be open and humble enough to admit that we are in need of God’s mercy, His forgiveness, and the new life He offers us.
May our prayer be always the prayer of the Publican: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”