30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
What made the difference between the Pharisee and the publican? Remember how the Pharisee prayed about himself – I am not greedy, dishonest and adulterous. I know we are all put off by his boasting. But let’s look at it objectively – he probably was living a clean life. On the other hand, the tax collector was probably greedy, dishonest and adulterous. Tax collectors were hated by the Jews as thieves and robbers. So what was the difference?
Let’s look at the prayer the Lord puts into his mouth. It tells us what matters to God. ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner’ The fact that the tax collector was greedy, dishonest and even adulterous did not matter as much as he was able to able to repent and ask for mercy. If we look at this prayer we notice two things. O God have mercy and on me a sinner. There is the real presence of God in the tax collector’s inner life. He does not talk about God He talks to God. He feels the weight of God’s presence, he feels the searching presence that probes his heart. And the second and equally important thing – the tax collector’s deep sense of unworthiness before this living presence. It shows immediately in how he sees himself. He would not even raise his eyes to the heavens but beat his breast. Now what the Lord is modeling for us here is that this how and this is the only way we can come before God. We are crooked timber.
We are creatures and we need mercy to even live much less to be forgiven. When we are before the living God, we spontaneously see how far we are away from Him. And when we forget we are creatures and sinners we have big problems. Have mercy on me a sinner. And strangely this draws God closer to us. I remember reading a rather beautiful story that says we are all connected to God by a string as it were. When we sin, we cut the string. But God will not give up. When we repent, God ties a knot and we are closer to God than before. And we sin again and again He ties the knot and we are closer than before.
Now the Pharisee did not need to repent. He felt no need for mercy. He was okay. And this is an indication that there is no one in his interior life except himself. If God were there as a presence, he would never make such a claim. So Jesus makes that frightening observation about him. He spoke this prayer to himself. He is all alone and he does not even know it. There is a story told of someone who went to confession to a wise, experienced confessor who had seen it all. This person began listing behaviors that troubled him – his need for domination, insensitivity to others etc. Then he began to draw on his own readings in psychology to show the priest how it all stemmed from his relationship with his wife. The priest gently patted him on the hand and said ‘Do you want forgiveness or an explanation. This person saw no need to repent. He would be perfect if others around him just got their act together.
Now all of us will admit one thing that Jesus was pretty sharp. Why did he not paint the tax collector as a victim? I am sure the tax collector was a victim of circumstances. I am sure the Lord’s heart bled for him because he saw how oppressed the man was. The tax collector may have turned to the profession out of necessity. Why did the tax collector not offer God an explanation of why he was greedy, dishonest and adulterous? He could easily have traced the problem back to God Himself. But no – there is no explanation. Just the plea for mercy. O God have mercy on me a sinner. We have to take this seriously. It is has very important implications for our own lives especially today when we are told that everyone is a victim and no one is a sinner. Everyone has explanations for their sins but no one needs forgiveness.
After all the explanations are said and done, at the end of the day we are still left with and have to live with crooked timber – ourselves. We have to deal with the fact that we sin even if there may be many factors that have messed us up and that may mitigate our guilt. But explanations and digging out all the causes are not going to change the heart. The mercy of God will. But we must first ask for it. And this is where the problem begins. Can we truly ask for mercy? Do we? Are we the Pharisee who thinks he is okay and the rest are just bad? Or are we conscious of being sinners but resentful that we cannot change our behavior or save ourselves and must ask for mercy and we hate being dependent on anyone especially God. We could continue this way spinning our wheels. But let us remember there was someone else who had conceived this resentment very early on before you or I or even the world was created – the Devil himself – Non Serviam – he shouted at the God. I will not serve. He serves Himself in hell now.
Only one man went home justified from the Temple – the spiritually disheveled tax collector because he asked for mercy. Let us do the same – ask for mercy instead of offering God explanations.