Sir 35:15-17, 20-22; 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk 18:9-14
In order to give a lesson to the self-righteous, Jesus narrates the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The Pharisee is a devout observer of the Law. He commits himself to a life of regular prayer, tithing and fasting. We might think that with these religious practices, the Pharisee would easily please God. Yet, according to the parable, the Lord criticizes the Pharisee because in his prayer he shows some kind of arrogance and self-righteousness. This is what the Pharisee says: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” Obviously, the Pharisee recognizes the moral frailties of others but not his own human weaknesses. He behaves like he is a perfect individual, incapable of sinning.
In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul reminds us that all have sinned, no one is exempted (3:22b-23a). Hence, God offers mercy to all of humanity through his Son Jesus Christ. The Pharisee is wrong when he separates himself from his fellow sinners. Because of this, he no longer feels the need to ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The tax collector is regarded as someone with no moral integrity by virtue of his employment. By working for the pagan Roman occupiers, he and other publicans are considered traitors and sinners. Surprisingly, however, the Lord praises the tax collector for praying with all sincerity and humility. The parable says that he continues to beat his breast and prays: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” His humility to accept his unworthiness and sinfulness leads him to beg for God’s mercy. And for this, the tax collector goes home justified.
The story is told that one day Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, visited a prison and talked with each of the inmates. There were endless tales of innocence, of misunderstood motives, and of exploitation. Finally the king stopped at the cell of a convict who remained silent. “Well,” remarked Frederick, “I suppose you are an innocent victim too?” “No, sir, I’m not,” replied the man. “I’m guilty and deserve my punishment.” Turning to the warden, the king said, “Here, release this rascal before he corrupts all these fine innocent people here!”
(The story is from Throw Fire by John Fuellenbach)
What do we learn from today’s gospel?
First of all, we are taught that the virtue of humility is an important foundation of prayer. Like the tax collector in the parable, we need to approach God with a humble heart. Jesus says that “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The first reading affirms by saying that “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal” (Sir 35:17)
Second, we are inspired to recognize our wounded nature and our sinfulness. Like the tax collector, let us entrust ourselves to the immeasurable mercy of God which is definitely greater than any sin we might have committed.
And finally, we are reminded not to look down on our fellow sinners who also need God’s mercy and forgiveness. Let us not follow the example of the Pharisee in the story whose arrogance goes to the extent of criticizing another worshipper at the temple. Instead, may we learn to support one another in our battle against all forces of evil and to pray for the salvation of all!
A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert like island. Not knowing what else to do, the two survivors agree that they had no other recourse but to pray to God.
However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.
The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man’s parcel of land remained barren.
After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife. The next day, there was a woman who swam to his side of the land. On the other side of the island, there was nothing.
Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing.
Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God's blessings, since none of his prayers had been answered.
As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heaven booming, “Why are you leaving your companion on the island?”
“My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who prayed for them," the first man answered. "His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything.”
“You are mistaken!” the voice rebuked him. “He had only one prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you would not have received any of my blessings.”
“Tell me,” the first man asked the voice, “what did he pray for that I should owe him anything?”
“He prayed that all your prayers be answered.”
(The story is from an unknown author)