October 27, 2019 Prepared for Publication while in Rome, Italy
Sirach 35, 12-14 & 16-18 + Psalm 34 + 2 Timothy 4, 6-8 & 16-18 + Luke 18, 9-14
As much as it might be easier to preach about prayer from these verses, that would avoid the real issue. What is important here comes at the very end, and that should be of interest to us. Luke tells us that “The tax collector went home justified.” The word “Justified” is important. It leads us to reflect how or what it means to be “justified.”
These were both probably good men, and their prayers were honest and true. The problem surfaces with the comments of Jesus. This parable is aimed at those who pride themselves on being virtuous while looking down on others. Although he was boastful, the Pharisee was no hypocrite. Everything he said was true and sincere. His problem was that he had no concept of his need of God. Since he didn’t consider himself a sinner, he felt no need of God’s mercy. In fact, he believed he had run up a formidable credit-balance with God. Which meant that he had God in his debt. He’s the kind of person in today’s world that just doesn’t think he’s done anything that should take him to the Sacrament of Penance. He also made the mistake of confessing the sins of others rather than his own. As confessor, I can tell you that confessing the sins of others as a way of minimizing your offences making yourself look better is a serious issue. These are the people quick to tell others that they need to “go to confession.” This man’s sins were not wrongful deeds, they were wrongful attitudes. What goes wrong for him is thinking that he could justify himself by right behavior, and that is just not how it works with God.
The way it works with God is shown with the other man, the one in the back. He knows he needs God. He knows God’s mercy. He never thinks for one minute that his life is perfect and therefore that God owes him anything but mercy. His prayer is the best: “Have mercy on me God. I am a sinner.” In the words of the first reading today, we are reminded that “the prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.” He leaves justified because the just ones are those justified by God, not by their own deeds. He leaves justified because he knows God and he knows himself very well. He knows that he can do nothing on his own, and that most of his mistakes are trying to do so. His words are few, but the attitude of his heart makes him pleasing to God. That is what it means to be “justified.”