In our Gospel today we hear the tax collector’s simple prayer, “O God be merciful to me, a sinner.” This has been described as a complete summary of Christian spirituality. This prayer connects us with God because it recognizes two things. First, it acknowledges God’s greatest quality in relation to us a sinful people which is His mercy. Secondly it recognizes our need for that mercy for our own salvation.
Before we explore this further a story of God’s answer to one man’s humble prayer. Some of you may have heard this story about Catholic musician, Jacob Rudd. Jacob was in the seminary studying to be a priest. When a decision had to be made to go on from college seminary to major seminary he began to question whether God was calling him to the priesthood that he loved so much. Jacob had a deep devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux and asked her to send a rose to aid in his discernment: a red rose if he was called to marriage and no rose if he should continue towards the priesthood.
St. Therese was a Carmelite nun, and because there was a Carmelite Monastery in his diocese Jacob decided to spend a few days on a retreat there as a way to become even more connected to St. Therese and to continue on in his discernment. At the end of the retreat Jacob was still uncertain as to what God would ask of him but he was open to either vocation. He returned to the seminary and met up with his friends, one who had just returned from studying in Europe. This friend opened his Liturgy of the Hours prayer book and handed Jacob a red rose he had picked from St. Therese’s home in France.
Jacob received the rose with a stunned look on his face in awe of what God had just done. He had not told anyone about his prayer and request. His decision about whether to continue on to major seminary was confirmed by a rose sent from heaven. And to add to the beauty of the story Jacob met his future wife the day after he left the seminary. Jacob now dedicates his life as a Catholic musician writing songs about the saints, Jesus, discipleship and family. He hopes through his music to communicate the beauty of the Catholic faith and lead others into a deeper encounter with Jesus and the Church.
Now let us look at prayer. Many Christians today are cynical about prayer. They say it doesn’t get results. Maybe that’s because we are frequently looking for results in the wrong places. Prayer does make a difference. When we really start praying frequently and unceasingly we see a difference in ourselves, in what we long for. We begin to feel a deeper desire for Holy things and less of a desire for hollow things. When we really start praying, our spiritual and intellectual appetites grow deeper and more mature. You start to find some of the shows you watch or music you listen to, no longer appeals to you. You find that certain sins and temptations have less of a hold on you. You want to read the bible more, you want more of the sacred, more of the reverent in your life. You find certain things appealing that you never found appealing before. You find other things meaningless that were full of meaning before.
When you spend more time in prayer you will love people more. You will hate sin more. You will think about God more and want to talk about Him with other people.
You will change. And the more we change the less we look at prayer as a thing that brings results. But we will see prayer more as an opportunity to spend time with God. To think about Him, to worship Him. To not always be asking for things but to just be there in His presence. In the end, nothing is more important than spending time with God.
Now we will turn to the Gospel for today. We read about two men who go to the temple to pray. One man (Pharisee) commits the sin of pride and leaves unjustified. What is pride? At its root, it declares, “I don’t want God to be God! I want to be God!” The other man (tax collector) though a great sinner receives the gift of justification through his humility which is a remedy for pride. Let’s look further at what the Lord is saying to us.
1) First Point (Pride). Jesus addresses this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. These people are under the illusion that they are capable of justifying and saving themselves. However, there is no saving righteousness apart from Christ’s righteousness. The point is, it is not how many spiritual pushups we do, how many good works we perform, that by itself will never be enough for us to earn Heaven. On our own we are not holy enough to enter Heaven or save ourselves. Only Christ and His righteousness can ever get us to Heaven. Even if we do have good works they are not really our gift to God. They are His gift to us. We cannot boast of them because they are His. The Pharisee in this parable is full of pride, convinced of his own righteousness as something he has achieved but he is badly mistaken.
2) Second Point: The Pharisee despised everyone else. He looks on others as being beneath him. The Pharisee says thank you God that I am not like the rest of humanity. One will not get to Heaven merely by being a little better than someone else. Being better than a tax collector, a prostitute, a dishonest businessman is not the standard we must meet. The standard we must meet is Jesus. He is the standard. Jesus said, Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. To compare ourselves to others misses the point entirely. When we come to Church do we say, thank you God that I am not like those other Catholics who skip mass on Sunday or do we kneel down before God and say, thank you Lord for the opportunity to come to Mass and praise you. Thank you for dying for love of me, a sinner.
The point is that we are to compare ourselves to Jesus and be conformed to Him by the work of His grace. Any honest comparison of ourselves to Jesus should make us fall to our knees and cry out for grace and mercy because it is the only way we stand a chance to be saved.
4) There is a lot of talk today about being basically a nice person, but just being nice is not how we get to Heaven. We get to Heaven by being like Jesus. The goal in life is to be made holy. We need to understand how radical the call to holiness is and how unattainable it is by human effort alone. Looking to be a little better than others must be replaced by having Jesus as our standard.
3) Third Point: The tax collector in his humility 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.” When we pray the Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass we put ourselves in the place of the tax collector and pray like he did. We strike our breast and say through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. God be merciful to me a sinner.
Now being humble is not something we can do on our own. We have to ask God for a humble and contrite heart. Without this gift we will never be saved. In our flesh we are just too proud. God needs to give us a new heart, a new mind.
The tax collector in today’s parable did three things which we should do as well.
1) He stood off at a distance. He knows how Holy God is and how sinful he is. This recognition of his sinfulness, his distance from God is already a grace and mercy God has given him. God is already granting him the gift of humility by which he stands a chance to be saved.
2) The tax collector would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Scripture says “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” He recognizes how impure his heart is and so in humility he looks down. Again God is granting him grace and mercy, the gift of humility.
3) The tax collector beat his breast and prayed, O God be merciful to me a sinner. Through his humility he invokes Jesus Christ who alone can make him righteous and save him. Scripture says, “The humble contrite heart the Lord will not spurn.” Jesus says, “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
To conclude, as a rule people who don’t pray are proud. If you don’t pray, what you’re basically saying to God is, “ I’ve got this. I don’t need you.” If you start your day without prayer you’re saying, “God I can take care of myself.” But if you begin your day with prayer it’s your way of recognizing every single day, “God you are God, I am not.” I need your help. I need your assistance. I am a sinner in need of your mercy.BACK TO LIST