Last week we heard a parable about “the need to pray always without becoming weary.” You remember; it was the story of the persistent widow who gets a favorable decision from the unrighteous judge. So having heard about how we need to pray always, today we hear a parable about how we are to pray.
And we have a good example and a bad example. The Pharisee, as usual, is our negative example. First of all he thanks God that he’s not like other people, who are dishonest and adulterous. He even thanks God that he isn’t like the other man praying there. He knows he’s so good, and he let’s God know too, explaining how well he fasts and pays his tithes.
Not that these are bad things! If God has given us the gift of being religious, or of a desire for prayer, or of being generous, these are good things! But the problem with the Pharisee was that he appropriated these gifts to himself. Notice what the Lord says: the Pharisee spoke his prayer “to himself.” He was pleased and self-satisfied with how religious he was, as if it was his own property.
We religious people need to careful of this trap. We have the gift of faith and the gift of loving our Lord here in his Eucharist. But why us? Why does God seem to have given us the gift of faith but not others? Is it because we are better people than the unbelieving world out there? Is it because we are less of sinners than those who ignore God? On the contrary! We are greater sinners, because we do the same things and yet, because we believe God, should know better.
The righteousness and faith that we have in us is not ours—it is, in fact, the righteousness of God himself. This is the good news of this Eucharist; that we come into communion with God through Jesus Christ. Our lives become part of his, and his body becomes part of our body. That’s holy communion, and that’s how the righteousness of God comes to dwell within us.
So we never have any reason to boast in our prayer. Even that we are praying at all is the pure gift of the Holy Spirit of God praying within us. Knowing that prayer is a gift brings us to our positive example of prayer, the tax collector.
The tax collector would not even raise his face to heaven but only prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This is not false humility . He is, in fact, a sinner. And he prays the only way he can, for the mercy of God.
Brothers and sisters, as Ben Sira tells us in the first reading, God knows no favorites. Even the goodness of the greatest saints is as nothing before the overflowing goodness of God. And so none of us can boast of how holy we are, how good we are, how religious we are. We all belong in the same place as the tax collector, praying simply, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
But this sense of our own unworthiness shouldn’t make us discouraged or sad. For as Ben Sira also says in the first reading, it is exactly the prayer of the oppressed and lowly that God hears. So we ought to call out, oppressed by sin as we are both individually and as a society.
It is when we are able to pray in this way, from the heart, that we will find gratitude. For it is when we recognize our need for the mercy of God that we will appreciate our faith and our salvation in Christ. The one who doesn’t need anybody doesn’t appreciate anybody.But when we realize how much we need God, that’s when we truly find faith and gratitude.