A news reporter once asked Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta if she had ever been tempted to be proud. Mother Theresa retorted with a smile, “Proud about what?” The reporter replied, “Why, about the wonderful things you have been doing for the poorest of the poor!” Then came her answer, “I never knew I had done anything, because it was God who worked in and through my Sisters and volunteers.” True humility differentiates a saint from a sinner.
Today’s Gospel tells us that humility and repentance for our sins must be the hallmark of our prayers. However, the central focus of today’s parable is not on prayer itself, but rather on the evil of pride, the need for true humility and the role of God’s grace in our salvation.
The Pharisees were looked upon as devout, law-abiding citizens and models of righteousness. But they were proud and self-righteous. Devout Jews observed three prayer-times daily, at nine AM, twelve PM and three PM.
The Jewish Law required fasting only on the Day of Atonement, but the Pharisee in today’s parable fasted twice a week. Although he was required to tithe only on his agricultural produce this Pharisee paid tithes on all his wealth. He was sure that he had done all that the Law of God required and even more.
But his prayer was ineffective because he was proud, despising all others, including the tax collector, labeling them sinners. He was really a good man, but he lacked compassion for others. If the first big mistake of the Pharisee was to think that God would be impressed by his boasting, the second was in his thinking that he was better than others.
Muhammad Ali, the boxer used to claim like this “When you are great and famous like me, it is hard to be humble.” Once, on the airplane, the flight attendant politely said to him,” Sir, you need to fasten your seat belt.” Ali replied, “Superman doesn’t need a seat belt.” To which the flight attendant politely responded, “And Superman doesn’t need an airplane also; please fasten your seat belt, Sir.”
The tax collectors were the most-hated group in Israel because they collected taxes for a foreign empire and became rich by cheating people, often threatening them with false accusations. Hence, they were considered by their fellow-Jews as unclean and sinful. The parable shows that both men were sinners: the difference was that the publican realized that he was, but the Pharisee did not.
We become the proud Pharisee when we boast about our achievements giving no credit to God, when we seek praise and recognition from others for our accomplishments, and when we degrade others with insensitive comments, hurting their feelings.
Today Jesus challenges us to imitate the tax collector, by acknowledging our total dependence on God and His grace for all our achievements and blessings; by confessing to God daily our sinfulness and asking for His pardon and forgiveness; by praying for God’s continued daily support through His grace; and by becoming more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, serving Jesus in them as best as we can.
It is a tragedy that those who justify themselves leave no room to receive grace. Morally they may be living exemplary lives, yet their self-justification leaves no room for the grace of God to take hold. There must be a space in our lives for grace to enter and work its miracle. We must keep our focus entirely on God and our relationship with Him, recognizing that we are constantly in need of His mercy and forgiveness.
On the first evening of their visit with their grandmother, a young boy and his brother knelt by their bed to pray. Shouting as loudly as he could, the younger boy begged. God, I need a new bicycle and a pair of roller blades.” The older boy then said, “not so loud. God isn’t deaf, you know!” To which his younger brother replied. “Yes, I know, but Grandma is.” Technically, the boy was praying to God but, like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel, he was doing so simply to benefit himself.