Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

Psalms 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

Like last week’s parable of the persistent widow and unjust judge, today’s parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and tax collector, is uniquely from the evangelist Luke. At this latter point in Luke’s gospel, as Jesus draws ever closer to Jerusalem, where God’s plan for all humanity will be brought to fulfillment, one can conclude that it’s message is extraordinarily important for Luke. While the gospel parable says something about genuine humility being necessary for our prayers, it’s focus is not so much on prayer, as it is on the evil of pride and arrogance, sins that might have the potential of inhibiting the possibility of our salvation.

While it is a Pharisee who immediately takes center stage in the parable, Jesus reminds the listener (reader) that the parable was “addressed to [all] who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” It is safe to assume that no listener to the parable wanted to be like the Pharisee in today’s gospel. From Jesus’ words, however, we can assume that He no doubt had run into many people who considered themselves superior, “not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The challenge for us, then, is to resist the almost universal temptation of thinking of ourselves as better than “others.” And notice that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself.” One does not have to be a blowhard; one merely needs to feel that way in their heart.

In contrast to the Pharisee, is the tax collector. Our gospel reading is, in a sense, a prelude to next week’s gospel, when Jesus will not only carry on a conversation with a tax collector, Zacchaeus, but he will even dine with him at his home. Tax collectors were almost universally despised by the Jewish people. Not infrequently, they were dishonest, and their collaboration with the Romans made them the object of most everyone’s scorn. The tax collector’s humility stands in high contrast to the Pharisee’s bravado. He is aware, as every person should be, of his sinfulness, of his unworthiness to even be standing in the Temple. He, no doubt, was aware that everyone disliked him for his work with the Romans, and on a daily basis he could feel the contempt of his Jewish brothers and sisters. But in today’s parable he is the hero of the story, and it is the tax collector who humbled himself, that Jesus said would “be exalted.”

The God who both the Pharisee and the tax collector worshipped, is beautifully described by Sirach in our first reading as a “God of justice, who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak,” Sirach reminds his readers, the petition of the lowly “reaches the heavens [and] pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal.” The Psalmist, too, reminds us that “the Lord is close to the broken-hearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” How often have we felt “crushed in spirit”? How often have we felt like the tax collector in the Temple, wondering whether God is even listening; wondering whether God only pays attention to those with titles and who are dressed in the finest of clothes?

St. Paul should serve as a model of humility for us. He saw himself as the “worst of men,” for he persecuted and killed (Stephen) those who chose to follow in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus, and the memories of his previous life haunted him, just as the tax collector’s occupation haunted him. Paul never lost confidence in the Lord who was capable of accomplishing the impossible. From his jail cell, from which he will be taken and killed, he can write to Timothy that in spite of “everyone deserting” him, “the Lord stood by [him] and gave [him] strength, enabling him to “keep the faith,” and receive “the crown of righteousness” that awaits him.

In his message for World Mission Sunday in 2018, Pope Francis writes: “Those who imagine that the mere knowledge of the historical Jesus and His doctrine, or participation in His meals and liturgical practices, are a guarantee of salvation, even if they live in the sins of rejecting God, corruption, exploitation, or any kind of injustice, are very deceived. There is no compatibility between lack of faith and injustice, and salvation.” Salvation is not earned through any amount of prayers or good works; salvation is totally gift. It will only come to those who acknowledge their dependence on a loving God, who are fully aware of how unworthy they are of the gift of salvation because of their sinfulness, and who pray with the utmost humility like the tax collector in today’s gospel parable.

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