Jesus pulls no punches in today’s Gospel text about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Typically, he chooses as his characters first one who is ostensibly the most upright and religious and then the other who is despised by everyone. And, as ever in his parables, Jesus turns the accepted order upside down.
We listen to the Pharisee’s wordy prayer: ‘I’ thank you, God, that ‘I’ am not grasping, unjust and adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that ‘I’ am not like this Tax Collector here. ‘I’ fast twice a week; ‘I’ pay tithes on all ‘I’ get. His prayer has more ‘I’s’ than a potato!
It is obvious that the Pharisee’s prayer is turned in on himself. He might as well be thanking himself instead of God because really he is not praying to him at all; in fact, he is trying to show off in front of God. He is not praising God he is praising himself. He is parading all his so-called good deeds before God. But he knows God so little that he has not realised what it really is that God is looking for or wants from him. At root all the Pharisee is doing is comparing himself to his fellow man.
The Tax Collector on the other hand knows how unworthy he is and implores God for mercy. What he is doing is not comparing himself to other men but comparing himself to God and finding himself wanting. He knows his sins, they are always before him, but because the habit of sin has become deeply ingrained it is very difficult for him to change his ways.
And this is precisely what true humility consists in; not comparing ourselves to others but comparing ourselves to God, or perhaps more easily to Jesus his incarnate Son. When we do this we begin to see ourselves in the correct light; we begin to see ourselves in true perspective. We realise that before God we are absolutely nothing. In comparison to Jesus we are utterly hopeless but in his mercy God saves us and raises us up. He forgives the contrite heart; he bathes us repentant sinners with salvation.
I was reading about the famous High Court Judge and Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham who died in 2001. He was a strong Anglican all his life. I think it was coming to terms with the death of his mother while he was a student at Oxford that made him into a convinced Christian. Until he died at the age of 94 he went down on his knees to pray every night. He said once, ‘I say the Lord’s Prayer and I pray for help, comfort and strength.’
He enjoyed recollecting the occasion when saw his brother on the other side of the central lobby of the House of Commons and shouted out his name to attract his attention. As he called out ‘Neil’ he was most amused to see several American tourists fall to their knees.
When asked in an interview how such an august legal personage as himself would meet his maker for the Final Judgement he said that he would immediately admit his guilt and throw himself on the mercy of the court. I don’t want to praise up Lord Hailsham too much, but in that phrase he summed up precisely the attitude of the tax collector from today’s parable.
But this is a very tricky parable because the minute you say, ‘Thank God that I’m not like this Pharisee’ ... woops... you have become just like him! So, if comparing ourselves to others is useless then what is useful when it comes to prayer? I think that what is the most useful is what I have said so many times from this lectern: attitude.
What we need to work on is not lengthy words; or promises to God telling him how we intend to change; or doing good deeds over and over again in an attempt to earn his favour. What we need to work on is our attitude. And we can see from our reading of this Gospel that the Pharisee and the Tax Collector had totally different attitudes to God. And Jesus is quite clear which of them God prefers.
When I was a Prison Chaplain, I once met a girl there who told me that she didn’t come to mass because all Church-goers were hypocrites. I got down on one knee and said how delighted I was to meet the only person I had ever come across who wasn’t a hypocrite. It caused much hilarity among the other prisoners who were standing around I can tell you. It was immediately clear that this girl’s attitude was one of constantly judging other people. But she can’t have been much of a saint herself otherwise she wouldn’t have ended up in prison. Fortunately, she had a sense of humour and had a good laugh at herself.
The question then is this: what is our fundamental attitude. This is what Jesus is always trying to uncover and bring into the light. Periodically, we need to look at ourselves in the cold light of day, we need to see ourselves not so much as others see us but as we really are. Traditionally we call this an examination of conscience and it is something that should feature very regularly in the life of every Catholic. Our ancestors knew of the importance of a proper examination of conscience and many of them made one every night before they went to bed. But then perhaps they were on the path to saintliness when many of us are not truly committed to achieving sanctity.
Yes, we all want to be in the back row with that Tax Collector—certainly most Catholics seem to want to seeing how full the back rows in Churches always are! But, of course, it doesn’t matter where you sit in the Church, it’s where you are in life and where you are in God’s plan for the world that really matters.
Our job as a Christian is to strive always for perfection, but never to think ourselves perfect.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket