Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses a number of parables in his teaching. I think it’s safe to say that Jesus’ parables are among the most memorable Gospel passages. We like to listen to parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan and think about what these stories might be saying to us, what lesson they have to give. But the parables are not fables: simple stories that provide a friendly lesson. Jesus often uses parables to shake things up, to turn people around.
Today we hear a parable about two guys praying: the Pharisee and the tax collector. For the people who would have heard Jesus speaking, this parable would have been rather unsettling. The Pharisees were respected as those who were the most devoted to the law that was so crucial to the people of Israel. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were people reviled for selling out and defrauding their own people for their own gain. The people of Jesus’ time would have had no doubt that the Pharisee was in God’s favor, and the tax collector not; and as the parable indicates, the Pharisee would certainly have agreed. But here, the tax collector is the one justified—the tax collector is the one whose prayer shows he’s in right relationship with God.
Now, we’ve all heard this parable and perhaps it sounds just fine to us. We live in a world where Pharisees are ancient history, and say what you will about the IRS, but most of us I’m pretty sure don’t really know any dubious tax collectors. In our “root for the underdog” society, we kinda like that the little guy gets ahead. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is harshin’ on the Pharisees, letting them know where they missed the mark—and so we would certainly never want to be like them. But if we reflect on this story some more, we should be as unsettled with it as Jesus’ listeners would have been. We may be closer to these Pharisees than we think.
If you’re like me, you like to think that you’re basically doing what you’re supposed to be doing, that you’re doing all right. Okay, so maybe your relationship with God isn’t perfect, but it’s not like you’ve killed anyone [that good ol’ moral lowest common denominator]. Sure, there are people that bother you, but you’re generally nice to others. You go to work, pay your bills, support your family, go to church, give to charity. We’re doing pretty good here— a LOT better than some people. Lord knows that there ARE murderers out there, and drug dealers, and pornographers, and people who steal; and there are even some people who don’t go to church on Sundays. We know that God loves sinners and looks to forgive sin, but surely we’re still on better grounds with God than those people. But that’s why this parable should be so unsettling to us! The tax collector is the one justified, the one in right relationship with God—this guy who had scammed people, who hurt people, who took advantage of people! But why?!?
Ultimately, it had to do with the approach to God. Both men were honest in their prayers, but the Pharisee assumed God’s role as judge and his prayer was basically self-congratulations in reference to those who had violated the law. Jesus even says he spoke that prayer to himself, not God. The Pharisee may have seemed to be a better person externally, but on the inside he was prideful and arrogant about his religious practice. Did he really feel the need for God, for the gift of God’s mercy? No way. What Jesus condemns is his forgetfulness that God is God and we are not.
Brothers and sisters, are we like the Pharisee sometimes? Do we look around and compare ourselves positively to others? Do we judge on externals sometimes? It’s easy to do. Is our prayer superficial, even if it may be true? Does our religious practice lead us into right relationship with God and others? Do we really feel the need the gift of God’s mercy…or the need for God at all? These are challenging questions, but Jesus gives us a key to the answer—through the simple, humble prayer of a fellow sinner of ours: the tax collector. The tax collector knew, because of his sinfulness, that he needed God. His heart was truly sorry and he was humble enough and honest enough to ask—to beg—for God’s mercy. He did not put on any airs before God, before others, before himself. And for all of this, he comes out justified—in right relationship with God.
It can be the same with us. But, like the tax collector, we have to be open to God and open with God. This involves being willing to take a good look under the hood. It takes honest, reflective prayer; examination of our conscience and consciousness; openness to those instruments of God’s grace, healing and reconciliation: the Sacraments. Today, as we come together to receive this Communion with the Lord and the Church, let us pray that as we receive Christ in the Eucharist, our hearts may be open to the love and mercy of God, and indeed be transformed.
©2017 St. Peters Catholic Church Huron Ohio.
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