Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
A Pharisee and a tax collector go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee marches right into the temple courtyard to pray, but the tax collector stands off at a distance. The Pharisee prays aloud. The tax collector prays quietly. The Pharisee recounts his righteous deeds and gives God thanks that he is “not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” While the tax collector humbly beats his breast in contrition and prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Watching from the sidelines, anyone with eyes to see could tell the difference btw these two men. Their demeanor, dress, speech; the stance each takes before God. All different. But can we see how they are alike? Is there any reason to believe that either of two men is lying? Not that I can see. Both are telling the truth. That's how they are alike. The Pharisee is righteous. And the tax collector is a sinner. What justifies each man, for Jesus, is what they do with these truths. To what purpose do they put their spiritual condition? Both the righteous and the unrighteous will be exalted if they humble themselves before God.
The key to understanding this deceptively simply parable is understanding the parable's audience. Luke writes, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” This parable at fired at those of us who are certain that we are righteous AND b/c we are certain of our righteousness despise everyone else. For a Pharisee to be sure of his righteousness is hardly scandalous. Follow the Law and your rightness with God is certain. There's no spiritual ambiguity here, no anxious hand-wringing about being in a state of grace. Now that we are certain of our rightness with God, what do we do? Well, one thing we do not do is despise everyone else b/c we are righteous. Nor do we give God thanks for helping us stay clean w/o also asking Him to pour out His graces on others in need of His help. Rather than despising your fellow sinners, your security in righteousness should compel you to further acts of sacrificial love in order to bring as many as possible into right relationship with God. The Pharisee's problem is his lack of genuine humility before God and his lack of genuine gratitude to God for his hard-won holiness. Humility and gratitude will persist in the truly righteous soul.
The Lord says to Hosea, regarding His chosen people, “Your piety [Judah] is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.” In place of “piety,” other English translations use love, goodness, loyalty. The Latin Vulgate uses misericordia, which conveys the notion of a compassionate mercy, a sympathetic humanity towards others. Through the mouth of His prophet, Hosea, the Lord condemns Judah for its fleeting compassion, its fugitive goodness and stingy mercy. He says, “. . . it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Give Me your love, come to know Me in love. Keep your sacrifices, your burnt offerings. Dare to be genuinely righteous before Me; lay all your wounds before Me—your worry, your pride, your fear, all of your secret sins. Set these ablaze before My altar, come to know Me in love. And I will bind all your wounds. I will come to you like the rain, like spring rain watering the earth. Then, when you stand to pray, you can pray with genuine humility and give wholehearted thanks. True righteousness can abide only when humility and gratitude stand under you as your unbreakable foundation.______________
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