This homily was not delivered in a Latin Rite Parish this Sunday. I am serving a Maronite Rite Parish in Tequesta, FL
Sirach 35, 12-14, 16-18 + Psalm 34 + 2 Timothy 4, 6-8, 16-18 + Luke 18, 9-14
It had to have been startling and disturbing to the people listening to Jesus when he first described that scene with two men a prayer. To recognize holiness in a tax collector was impossible to those people, so despised were tax collectors. If it did anything at all it might have caused them to give some attention to the prayer rather than the one at prayer, thereby giving us all something to think about when it comes to prayer. One look at the prayer Jesus taught us sets the focus. Prayer is first of all about giving honor, glory, and praise to God. In the end, that’s all God expects and asks of us. The prayer Jesus taught begins by doing just that: “Hallowed by the name”.
That Pharisee at prayer seems to be praying to himself. Five times he uses the word, “I”. Clearly, he is praising himself. There’s no recognition of God at all. It’s as though he is in an echo chamber. Yet, he is a Pharisee. He’s one of the holy and righteous ones in Israel. He’s praying to himself. He recites his virtues wanting to appear blameless. It doesn’t work. He claims to be honest, but he is not even honest with himself. He claims that he is no adulterer, but yet his self-admiration makes him unfaithful to God. He tithes missing the point that tithing and fasting should lead us to care for others.
Meanwhile in the back, with head bowed the mercy of God is acknowledged by someone honest enough to call himself a sinner. Best of all, he is willing to accept that mercy His prayer reveals that he is ready to move beyond selfishness. Honest about who he is, he is also honest about who God is knowing that he deserves nothing but hoping for the loving kindness of God. That hope itself is a kind of praise and acknowledgement of the virtues of God. While the other one is certain that he has earned it, as though God passed out rewards to God’s favorites.
These verses invite us to re-examine our prayer language as well as our image of God who wants to be God to us, a God of mercy, a God of forgiveness, a God of compassion and love. I don’t think God wants to be the judge who passes out prizes to the winners That image of God comes out of our behavior and thinking. It is not the image of God Jesus came to reveal.
This Jesus of Luke’s Gospel speaks to us today with a reminder that those who know their need for God will pray in a way that God can answer. I believe that God likes us best when we are humble enough to admit our need for God’s help and open enough to receive what God wants to give.
“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one” says C.S. Lewis. “It’s the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones.” He is explaining how easy it is for religious people (Pharisees and us) to lose our way, to gradually slip from wonder before God into thinking that our own perfections and success are what matters allowing to scorn and judge others who seem less than we are. Only those who understand God’s humility can bow their heads before mercy. When we pray: “God, be gracious to me” we are simply asking God to be God. What greater praise could there be?