Be merciful to me a sinner

September 5, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Luke 18:9-14.

He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

What strikes me here is that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself.” While that can mean that he prayed silently, I take it to mean that he was only talking to himself. God was not the one he was addressing; it was himself, his own arrogance and, as Jesus said, his self-righteousness. How often have I done the same thing when I am “praying” to God? Justifying myself to myself? How often have I “prayed” words like “at least I didn’t lie about it” when I wasn’t fully disclosing? Or “it’s excusable that I got mad about that; I hardly ever lose my temper?” There are countless times when I have “prayed” to myself when I thought I was praying to God. God doesn’t want to hear my excuses. He doesn’t want me to minimize my the times I have failed to do His will, to build His kingdom.

And He sure doesn’t want me to let myself off the hook because I haven’t failed as badly as others, let alone hold myself above them. In another indication that the Pharisee was praying to himself was that his eyes weren’t on God, weren’t raised to heaven as the tax collector’s. His eyes roved to the tax collector after he had taken up his position. He was more interested in his own status, his position, relative to others than his own standing before God. It reminds me of times I have heard people complain that others weren’t dressed appropriately for Mass or for some reason didn’t “belong” at Mass. It’s funny that one of the things that drew me to the Church as a young man was that I felt comfortable wearing cut-off jeans to Mass, which I’m sure some people thought was outrageous. It seems we are constantly comparing ourselves to others in a harsh, judgmental way even while supposedly worshipping God. It’s not the hypocrisy that Jesus decried, it’s the fact that none of us can rightly exalt ourselves before God. We all have reason to be humble.

I tend to grade my sins by degree from not so bad to nearly unforgivable. The Church does the same thing distinguishing between venial and mortal sins. I’m not so sure that God has a rating system. There’s a pretty clear line between doing His will and failing to do His will. Think about the ten commandments. He doesn’t seem to make a distinction in gravity between “You shall not kill” and “You shall not steal.” Either one is to reject His will. When I fail, as I frequently do, I distance myself from Him putting the kingdom off that much longer.

I think my prayer is a barometer of my relationship with God. At best it is a conversation beginning with an honest reflection of myself, an acknowledgment of my failings, and a petition for God’s mercy. Unburdened then I can listen for His loving forgiveness and guidance on what I can do or not do to better conform to His will, to His desire for me to do my part in bringing about the kingdom. When I am engaged in that kind of prayer, no one around me is able to distract me. My eyes are only on Him and my voice is only for His ears. That’s when I am totally dependent upon Him and not myself. In that dependence I can be nothing other than humble and grateful. And the curious thing is that I am drawn closer to other people, a sure sign of the kingdom.



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