God is gracious to candid sinners
1. Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘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.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Lk18:9-14). Taken from today’s Sunday gospel for 30th Sunday year C.
2. Last Sunday the readings dwelt on the need to pray without ceasing. Today it is still the same theme of prayer but focusing on the condition for making our prayers acceptable to God. How does one pray so that his prayer becomes irresistible to God, that his prayer pierces the clouds like an arrow? The first reading (Sir35:12-14,16-19) says that humility is the one and only condition for obliging God to hear our prayers.
3. Jesus dramatized the above point through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The pharisees were the religious aristocrats who defended the purity of Jewish religion. The temple of Jerusalem was the centre of their activities. They were so popular that at the time of Jesus every growing young man would like to become a pharisee. Their external observance of the commandments of God was impeccable. They were the righteous people. But the tax collectors were traitors, collaborators with foreign force of occupation who contract the work of collecting money from the Jews to these traitors. They were normally given a quota for each neighborhood but it is left for them to know how much to tax each individual. They make their money through the excess collection. Those who default in payment were harshly punished. For this reason the tax collectors were classed with thieves and prostitutes as public sinners. Jesus used these two figures to show that God does not judge the way humans judge. So, a pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray. We heard how they prayed and how God reacted to each of them.
4. The two men knew their need of God. Both prayed to God. But one prayed like a righteous man and the other like a sinner. From the comment of Jesus at the end of the parable we understand that what separates us from God is not sin but our inability to recognize that we are sinners. The tax collector was a sinner but he knows that he was. Thank pharisees was proud and arrogant but he was unconscious of the sin. Even though God is not partial, he prefers a sinner who recognizes his sins to a good man who pretends not to have any sin. God closes his ear to the proud hearted who despises others.
5. Jesus said that the tax collector went home justified. He used the word “justified” to show that nobody can see himself as just before God but that God makes the one who comes to him as sinner to become justified. The tax collector went home justified because he focused on his weakness, telling God to come to his help. The pharisees was not justified because he focused on others, judging and condemning them before God and proudly affirming: “I am not like the rest of men.” It is wrong to look down on others whom we consider to be sinners. It is only God who can rightly discern a sinner from a saint because he alone has access to human heart. While it is not wrong to thank and praise God for the virtues we see in our life, we must not forget that without God we are already lost, without the justification that comes from God, even our righteous deeds will be like filthy rags before him (Is64:6). We must humbly accept the role that the grace of God plays in helping us to do good.
6. You now know that recognizing your sin before God brings him closer to you and makes your petitions to pierce the clouds. Whenever you kneel in prayer first recognize that you are a sinner because you are guilty of any good thing that you have failed to do and this is innumerable. You can never stand before God as a good person unless God justifies you as he did to the tax collector. Seek for this justification by constantly saying to God: “Lord, have mercy on the poor sinner that I am.” The best prayer of David was Psalm 51, a psalm that pleads for forgiveness. You can also make it part of your daily prayer. If God justifies you nobody can condemn you (Rom8:33-34).