THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, C.
ACCOMPLISHMENT VS SUPERIORITY: PAUL'S SAMPLE FOR BELIEVERS
Ordinarily, it would be proper to compare the Pharisee with the tax collector in today's gospel. The manner of their prayers differs completely from each other. I'm not sure if the Pharisee's prayer falls really within the category of thanksgiving because he seems to be thanking not God but himself, and eventually excludes the tax collector from his merited glory. Somehow, I wish to look at the Pharisee side by side Saint Paul who also says a prayer that seems to acknowledge his own achievements in the second reading. What differs between Paul and the Pharisee? Does Paul, like the Pharisee not sing his praises too?
Paul prays this way: "I am already poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance" (2Tim.4:6-8). Then let's see the Pharisee's prayer: "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity- greedy, dishonest and adulterous- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income" (Lk.18:11-13).
- Saint Paul marshals out his accomplishments while the Pharisee exhibits his superiority. Accomplishment shows something done admirably or creditably. It spells out achievements while superiority displays rank, degree, importance, grade, quality or merit. Saint Paul recognizes his efforts, puts together his report card at the end of his life. On the other hand, the Pharisee submits his weekly superiority journal. He lauds himself for not being like the rest of men. He believes that he deserves praises for being different.
- Paul is grateful to God while the Pharisee is grateful to himself. Paul recognizes that "the Lord, the just judge" is the one to give him the crown of righteousness on the last day. He attributes his success to God. The Pharisee walks in to fulfill his religious duty. Christ put it this way, "The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself". And his prayer is, "God I thank you that I am not...". He avoids attributing his success to God.
- While Paul appreciates the efforts of others, the Pharisee condemns others outright. Paul recognizes that God will award the crown of glory not only to him but also to "all those who have longed for his appearance". He is grateful for God's generosity. The Pharisee excludes others. He condemns everyone else, presents the tax collector as unworthy before God.
- Paul makes God the active subject in his prayer while the Pharisee sees God only as a passive listener. Paul's achievements demonstrate his faith; "I have kept the faith" in God. The Pharisee reels out his achievements before God and walks away. He merely comes to show himself.
- The manner of prayer of Paul shows humility. Even though it pictures Paul's accomplishments, it shows more that his success is because of God's love and mercy. Think about how the Pharisee bumps into God; "I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity". That already smacks of arrogance and pride. He begins with a condemnatory attitude of others, then goes on to do a checklist of his achievements; "I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income". This guy could fit into the picture of modern day politicians, thinking of only what he could accomplish rather than of God's benevolence.
From the foregoing, we continue with the trend of prayer started since past few weeks. Last week's focus was on persistence in prayer. Today, we shift attention to the inner disposition that best attunes us and allows our prayers to be heard by God.
Sirach tells us in the first reading that God is a just God who hears the prayer of the oppressed and the poor. It is not favoritism that attracts God to the weak, but his concern for those in need, his passion for justice. The Psalmist says, "the Lord hears the cry of the poor. He is close to the broken-hearted and those who are crushed in spirit he saves" (Ps.34:17-18).
In the gospel, Christ uses the image of the tax collector to depict how the inner disposition appeals to God in prayer. Ordinarily, the tax collector is known as a major sinner in the Jewish setting. The Pharisees complained of Zacchaeus when Jesus went into his house, "He has gone to stay at a sinner's house" (Lk.19:7-8). And of Matthew, they said to his disciples, "Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?" ((Matt.9:10-11). So, it isn't strange that the Pharisee uses such condemnatory words for the tax collector when he says he isn't a sinner like him. The strange thing rather is the repentant and humble approach of the tax collector. Scripture says, "He stood off at a distance", thus recognizing his unworthiness before God (Adoration). He "would not even raise his eyes to heaven" (Contrition). "He beat his breast and prayed" (Supplication). He says, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner" (Thanksgiving). The tax collector recognizes the profundity of divine mercy and taps into it. Christ said he went home justified unlike the Pharisee who went home guilty for his arrogance and self exaltation.
What attitude do we bring to the church? What approach do we give to others in relation to our spiritual lives? Ironically, spirituality is one of those exercises that cannot be measured concretely. Our relationship with God flows from the heart, more of internal journey. That is why it is difficult to assess anyone's spirituality either by mere observation or even attendance to church. Hence, Pope Francis continues to emphasize on God's mercy. It is by his mercy that we are all saved not by our merits. God's grace is what each person needs even in our struggle with ourselves. It is important to shun every tendency of condemnation for another. Sometimes, we find those who seem to be struggling with challenges as human beings. We find those who struggle with addiction. We find those who slide into human errors. We find those who seem to be morally bankrupt. We find those who seem not even interested in hearing about the Christian way of life, who are adamant in their debased moral life. Do we condemn them?
We need to recognize two things: First, that we are all sinners, who fall short of God's glory (Cf. Rom.3:23). It is not our duty to condemn, we don't need to act like the Pharisee, saying, "I am not like that guy over there". Be aware that we all trip in different ways. We all have different struggles. While we have to keep struggling, making efforts to live good, holy lives, we must recognize that our challenges differ. Second, we need to realize that our prayer will be more helpful for the individual than our condemnatory attitude. Just put out a few words to say, "May God help him/her", if you find someone who is struggling with a challenge or addiction. That's much better than displaying a sense of spiritual superiority.
Let us therefore learn from the Pharisee and tax collector's episode today, and as well from Saint Paul. Having the right inner disposition in prayer is very important. God loves us in our humility. He wants us to recognize his love and mercy. He wants us to come to him the way we are, and let his grace fill us up. God wants us to go home big and justified. We can only be justified in the presence of God if we humble ourselves. Sense of superiority shuts down God's grace, makes him a mere passive listener in prayer. Humility lets God speak. It lets his mercy flow abundantly in us.
May we be glad to go counted as justified before God. Amen.