Summary: whenever Catholic theology gives an answer, it usually has the word “et” in it. There is always an add-on, an essential “and.”
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost 2016
The parable usually called “the Pharisee and the Publican” could just as easily be called “Self-delusion and self-understanding.” But let’s understand that Jesus told this parable to Pharisees, who trusted in themselves that they observed the 600 plus regulations of the Mosaic law but ignored the Mosaic law of love. This story was bound to offend His listeners’ sensibilities. But Jesus knew that the Jewish establishment had already determined that He was a threat and needed to be eliminated. And He had long since determined to go to Jerusalem for the final confrontation with those who totally misunderstood God’s intention to have mercy on all humankind, and with the foul lord of evil himself. So Jesus was not trying to win points here with His listeners. He was trying to inspire His disciples with an understanding of what our true prayer attitude must be.
The Pharisee was totally deluded about both prayer and righteousness. Just to whom was he giving thanks? And understand that the Greek word used here is eucharistou, from which we derive our formal name for the greatest prayer of thanksgiving, the Holy Mass. The Pharisee, in brief, said to God, “I give Thee thanks, O God, not for all the wondrous things that Thou hast done–the Passover from Egypt, the land of Israel, the ability to worship. No, I give Thee thanks for all the marvelous deeds that I have done.” Jesus told us what our attitude toward the things we have done should be: “So you also, when you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do.”
The Pharisee just didn’t get it, did he? He went home to his kosher kitchen and precisely made garments and may have thought, “why don’t I feel better? I just came from Temple.”
But we all know how the tax collector felt when he went home. Remember that tax collectors–once called publicans–were despised in Jewish society. They were not even eligible to come to synagogue. They were agents of the hated Romans. They were tax “farmers.” The Romans told them how much to collect and so they really acted like Mafia bag men. They stole more money than the Romans had demanded, raked off their vigorish and gave the Romans what was required. They were, simply, racketeers. The tax collector Zacchaeus, who had the valuable Jericho concession, was a good example. When he came to follow Jesus, he had to repent and give back everything that wasn’t due him. But let’s be realistic. We are all sinners like this tax collector. When we want to be justified and purified, we repent of our sins and make a good confession. And so the real take-away from today’s Scripture is a prayer we should repeat every day: O Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner. That’s the only way we can hear Jesus say, “I absolve you.”
St. Francis de Sales recommends that we frequently use this and other short prayers–the saints of the desert called them “javelin” prayers. He says use them “so that by thus laying our tribulation before our Savior, we may pour out our souls before and within his [pitying] heart, which will receive them with mercy.” Another variant that I recommend is Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. We cannot fool God so we should stop fooling ourselves. The only way to be a realist in this world is to recognize our profound need for forgiveness and mercy, and our fundamental situation of being stuck in a moral black hole, unable to escape without the grace of Christ. The more we admit this and ask for it with the confidence that we will always be given it, the more realistic we will become. Remember, the other word for “moral realist” is “sinner becoming saint.”