|Icon of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector|
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2013]
I think we need to help the Pharisee with his prayer.
In its present form, it’s obviously not acceptable to Jesus. Our Lord makes that clear at the end of the parable when he says, “I tell you the [tax collector] went home justified, not the [Pharisee].”
But I think his prayer could be made acceptable—or at least a lot more acceptable—with a few modifications (presuming, of course, that these modifications were made sincerely by the Pharisee himself!).
The original prayer read as follows: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Here now is the modified version: “O God, I thank you for the grace you have given me to avoid certain sins like greed and dishonesty and adultery—since without this grace it would be impossible for me to avoid these or any other sins in my life. But, unfortunately, I am prideful and arrogant and condescending, and I really don’t think I need you very much. So God, please be merciful to me, a sinner.”
That prayer would have been much more acceptable to God for the simple reason that it would have been rooted in self-knowledge and in truth! Perhaps this Pharisee had actually been able to resist greed and adultery and many other sins over the years. That’s great! But he was not able to stay away from those things by his own grace and power (which is what his original prayer indicated that he believed!). Rather, it was by the grace of God that he was able to avoid all those evils and act righteously. And so it is with us. This is why whenever we see somebody doing something sinful that we don’t presently do (or perhaps have never done), we should say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
We should say that because it’s true!
If it was not for the grace of God we would be just as bad—or worse!
But even if we have, by the Lord’s grace, been able to avoid some sins, we certainly have not been able to avoid ALL sins—and if we truly know ourselves we will be keenly aware of that fact.
Which only goes to show that this Pharisee did NOT know himself very well! His original prayer indicated that he had absolutely no sense whatsoever of how prideful and arrogant and condescending he was—which is why that admission had to be present in his modified prayer in order to make it acceptable to God.
Applying this now to ourselves: I think that some Catholics believe that they impress the priest when they go into the confessional and say to him, “Father, I don’t have any sins.”
Believe me, my brothers and sisters, that does not impress the priest! If anything, it DE-presses him—because a statement like that indicates the penitent really doesn’t know himself (or herself as the case might be)!
We all sin every day—and if we truly know ourselves we will recognize that fact. We may not be sinning in big ways (although if you believe the statistic Fr. McCaffrey shared in his homily last week—that 85% of Catholic couples are using artificial contraception—then many ARE sinning seriously); but even if we’re only committing little sins of anger and gossip and selfishness every day, the fact is we’re still committing sins that need to be repented of and taken away!
What really impresses me (and I dare say what impresses most priests) is when somebody comes into the confessional who seems to really be in touch with many of the ways that he or she offends God and other people. THAT’S impressive, because it shows that the person really knows himself or herself (like the tax collector in this parable really knew himself); and because it indicates that the person is humble, and wants to continue on the road to holiness and, ultimately, heaven.
In this regard, I’m glad that today’s second reading from 2 Timothy 4 is paired up with this gospel passage from Luke 18. Here we have St. Paul, who knows that he’s likely to be martyred in the near future, writing to Timothy about the life he’s led since his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He says, “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.”
Now if we read that passage in isolation, we might get the idea that Paul was a guy who had an exalted opinion of himself, like the Pharisee in this parable had an exalted opinion of himself.
But that’s not the case, as Timothy would certainly tell us. Paul was not conscious of any serious sin in himself, that’s true; but he was definitely in touch with the fact that he was still a sinner in need of forgiveness, and that whatever goodness was present in him in his post-conversion life was there because of God’s saving grace! He had already told Timothy as much in a previous letter, when he said, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, that he has made me his servant and judged me faithful. I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance; but because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully, and the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I myself am the worst. But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might an example to those who would later have faith in him.”
Paul gives a very similar message in one line of 1 Corinthians 15 when he says, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
These are not the kinds of things that the Pharisee in this parable would say; these are the kinds of things the humble tax collector would say.
There are two extremes that must always be avoided in this life, my brothers and sisters: we must avoid thinking too much of ourselves (which, of course was the error of the Pharisee); but, at the same time, we must avoid thinking too little of ourselves (which is an error that’s equally as bad, because it can easily lead to despair).
St. Paul had the balance—as did the tax collector in this parable! The tax collector knew his sins, just like Paul knew his. But he also believed that God loved him enough to forgive him. In other words, the tax collector knew he was a sinner, but he also believed that, in God’s eyes, he was worth pardoning! If he hadn’t believed both those things, he would never have said the prayer that he said.
You don’t ask for mercy like he did, unless you actually believe that it’s possible for you to receive it.
Maybe all this—maybe all that I’ve said in this homily today—explains why more people don’t go to confession on a regular basis: either they don’t believe they need it because they think they don’t sin, or they believe they’re too far gone and beyond the reach of God’s mercy.
As I hopefully have made clear this morning, both those perspectives are wrong.
St. Paul knew that; the tax collector in this parable knew that.
And hopefully, now, so do we.