The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, von Carolsfeld, Die Bibel in Bildern, Plate 200, 1860.
[Jesus said] “…whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:14.
Today’s gospel seems to point to the heart of the entire gospel message. It focusses on one crucial question: God or me? or, put another way, others or me? It comes up throughout Scripture; Psalm 15, for example, praises the one who does no wrong to his brother, or casts no slur on his neighbor. Today’s first reading talks of the prayer of the lowly which reaches the Most High, and St. Paul talks of winning the race, keeping his faith in Christ no matter what. So Jesus challenges us quite clearly and directly: who is more important to each of us, God or self? Today’s parable could hardly be more clear about the answer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector” says the Pharisee in the form of what he would regard as a prayer, though it is clearly a prayer to and about himself! When we pray to God, we address the ultimate purity, the source of all goodness and love, the ultimate Other to whom all praise belongs and who waits to return it. Who are we in comparison with such spotless perfection? Love, however, only requires one thing, to be given away and that is what our perfect God wishes to do, to love us and be loved in return. The Pharisee, unhappily, is in love with himself! God wishes that we love God always and everywhere. St. Paul, under judicial sentence of death for his belief in such a God, loves God throughout, no matter the consequences, because the returned love of God for him will strengthen him through anything, just as it had done for Jesus himself. In the parable, the person whom God finds justified is the humble tax collector, a person who would be hated by everyone around him, but not by God. This man knows his limits and what has to be done to tear them down and allow God to enter. With the other, there is no room for God, only himself.
So today we are asked to look within ourselves honestly and as clearly without obfuscation as possible. Upon whom do we focus our life, our hope, our ambition, our actions, our trust, our very self? Is it on ourselves or is it to reflect the glory of God? Is it seeing God in others and in what we do, or is it in pride of our own achievement as if such talent producing it were our own creation? There is a hymn which attempts to sum up this ultimate commitment to stand with God, to have God within and allow God to take us over, as it were, written by none other than St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland:
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.