While the Pharisee used his prayer to beat down others, the tax collector beats his own chest, further showing that he understands his own sinfulness. He has no pride in who he has become. When the tax collector prays he doesn’t pray to himself, he prays to God.
It’s a simple prayer in which he recognizes his only hope is for God to save him.
Image by Nick115
By Tim Trainor
Today's Scripture Readings all talk about mercy, connecting to our last two Wednesday's Reflections—Steve Hall's on 'Love' and Steve Leininger's on 'The Prodigal Son.'
So what is mercy, specifically divine mercy? Before we can walk through the story of God's merciful love for the human race, we need to have some knowledge of what the Catechism says about love and divine mercy. CCC#1766 reads "To love is to will the good of another,” which is a quote from Saint Thomas Aquinas. All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good. Saint Augustine said only the good can be loved.
The phrase 'divine mercy' presents us with a semantic problem. Mercy in our contemporary English has a very restricted meaning. It is usually used to refer to an act of pardon, as in "Let me off, judge; have mercy!" or "He threw himself on the mercy of the court." In the Catholic Tradition, mercy means more than just the cancellation of punishment. Far more.
Divine mercy is God's love reaching down to meet the needs and overcome the miseries of His creatures. The Bible, plus the teachings of the Church Fathers, and more recently, Pope John Paul II all assure us that this is so.
In the New Testament, the Greek word usually translated as "mercy" is eleos, also translated as loving kindness or tender compassion. Eleos comes from a root word meaning oil that is poured out. When the Church sings in her liturgy the Greek words Kyrie Eleison and Christie Eleison, she is praying that the merciful love of God will be poured out upon her children, like holy oil from above.
According to the ancient Fathers of the Church, the Church was born from the wounded side of Christ. Out of His heart poured out blood and water, symbolic of all the graces of our two chief Sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist (see John 19:34). Eleos is God's love poured out upon His people.
In the Latin tradition, the principal word for mercy means "miserable heart." Or, "having a pain in your heart for the pains of others, and taking steps to do something about their pain." The most comprehensive statement by the Magisterium on the meaning of divine mercy can be found in a Pope John Paul II's (JPII) encyclical letter "Rich in Mercy,” he made two very important statements about mercy. First, "Mercy is love's second name." Secondly, mercy is "the greatest attribute of God."
JPII was not saying anything new with mercy is love's second name. According to the Catholic theological tradition, mercy is a certain expression of love, defined as a sharing and giving oneself to another, a selfless seeking of the good of another.
Saint John wrote for us .
In the first reading from the Old Testament (Hosea 6:1-6), we hear, “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” We are being taught that “love” leads to “knowledge of God,” that is who and how God is. This is a clear Old Testament reading Saint John's references in his first epistle, "God is love" (1 John 4).
In Psalms, we find the teaching, “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice” repeated. Several word pictures of mercy are set forth for us. It describes the most desired sacrifice that God seeks, which is “a contrite spirit” like that of The Prodigal Son.
In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a surprising story, full of plot twists and many rich spiritual truths. Its meaning is one that we shouldn’t ignore as it gives us much insight into how we should approach God.
We often miss the shocking nature of this parable because it has become a common storyline. We tend to immediately associate the Pharisees with self-righteous hypocrites and the tax collector as a model of righteousness. But in Jesus’ day it was reversed. The Pharisees were models of righteous. The tax collectors epitomized sinners. Jesus told this parable to create a lasting impression.
We have two contrasting prayers from two very different people. Luke tells us up front. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” It is a story of pride versus humility.
The audience expected the Pharisee to be the prime example of what we should look like. No one expected the hated, low-life tax collector who betrayed his own people for money, to be a better example to follow!
The Pharisee stood by himself and said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
Who is he praying to? He’s not praying to God. He’s praying to himself. We are told this in the Parable itself. The Pharisees, as a group, considered themselves worthy of God’s grace based on their religious performance, their sacrifices. They thought they had earned the right to demean others and make demands. This prayer sadly shows a self-righteous attitude fueled by pride.
The Pharisee reports all the wonderful things he does. He fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets. He is showing off, bragging.
The Old Testament Law required a fast only once a year. The Pharisees fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays as a ploy to attract attention to themselves. These were the days the market convened and many people came to town. They were just showing off.
If you count it up, the Pharisee uses the pronoun “I” five times in his prayer about himself. In the tax collector’s prayer, Jesus flips the script: “The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
In stark contrast from the Pharisee’s prayer the taxman stands at a distance, refusing to assume the normal posture of prayer of looking to heaven, as the Pharisee did. He recognizes his unworthiness, like a child who knows he’s in trouble and refuses to look his parents in the eyes.
While the Pharisee used his prayer to beat down others, the tax collector beats his own chest, further showing that he understands his own sinfulness. He has no pride in who he has become. When the tax collector prays he doesn’t pray to himself, he prays to God. It’s a simple prayer in which he recognizes his only hope is for God to save him.
The Pharisee used his prayer to elevate himself as a 'righteous' person and therefore a standard of goodness in need of nothing. The tax collector used his prayer to elevate himself as a 'sinner' in great need of forgiveness.
The parable's bottom line comes when Jesus tells us the take-away. “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The type of prayer God respects and answers out of mercy-full love is not from those who appear righteous and exalt themselves, but rather those who humble themselves because they see how in need and sinful they really are.
I found it ironic that both of these men got exactly what they each prayed for. The tax collector humbly asked for mercy, and he received it. The Pharisee asked for nothing because he thought that he already had it all, so he received nothing from God.
The second irony of this story is the Pharisee was in the same condition. While he might look good on the outside he was just as sinful on the inside. He needed mercy too. But he couldn’t get past his pride to see his need.
We like to point the finger at the Pharisee, but the reality is we all probably have a little of his pride filled attitude in our hearts as well. This parable should cause us to pause and reflect. We all need God’s mercy and grace. Unless we humble ourselves and get beyond our pride, we will never see it or receive it.
To me, that's scary. Rather than justifying our sin and comparing ourselves to others we need to come to God with humility. And when we do that God will not just forgive us he will exalt us!