By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
This past Sunday’s Gospel reading is one of my favorites – and it has been since my earliest days.
I don’t know for sure if that’s because I heard my dad praise it, or if we had a discussion about it that made it more memorable than other Gospel passages. I can’t remember details back that far. But I do know that as far back as I can remember the passage has always resonated with me.
This Gospel passage comes from Luke (18:9-14), where Jesus tells the parable to two men who went to the temple to pray. We’re tipped off that he is addressing this parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked self-righteous folks, so it has warmed my heart to know from as far back as I can remember that Jesus had his issues with these folks too.
His parable begins with two men praying – but doing so in very different ways:
The first man, a Pharisee, has a heart full of gratitude “that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” He reminds God that he fasts twice a week and pays tithes on his whole income, which is way more than the minimums expected of observant Jews.
The second man, a tax collector (generally much despised by proper Jews), “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven.” Instead of making a single claim for his own goodness, he “beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”
Under the circumstances you might think that the first man, the Pharisee, is a model of devotion of God, while the second, the tax collector, for all his sorrow, is a reprobate.
Certainly the Pharisee thinks so. He even thanks God that he is not like the tax collector.
But Jesus expresses a very different opinion: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.”
And why is that? Jesus continues: “for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
No doubt the Pharisee would be surprised by Jesus’ judgment. In fact, if he were to hear it directly from Jesus, I think he would vehemently disagree and angrily defend his considerable virtue – much as he insisted on his virtue to the Father in his prayer.
There’s no denying that the Pharisee is living a good life in many ways. But that is not the basis for Jesus’ judgement about whether or not he is justified in the eyes of God. He is not justified because his heart is not in the right place, and as a result, he is more comfortable playing God than worshipping and serving Him.
Jesus’ point is that if we wish to be truly justified, we must leave the matter of our righteousness, our virtue, up to God. Our proper role is to seek God’s forgiveness and mercy. We are to find our consolation not in the things we do, no matter how seemingly virtuous, but in God’s complete and unconditional love for us – which we are to emulate, as much as we possibly can.
St. Paul picked up that theme in his First Letter to the Corinthians when he writes:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues* but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3)
Not only does Jesus call us to do the will of the Father, he calls us to put the love of the Father first and foremost in our lives.
So we have to try to make God’s love for us -- and in grateful response, our love for Him, expressed in our love for neighbor -- the center of every thought we have, every word we utter and every deed we do.
The good news is that when we fall short, God still loves us. We just have to get out of His way, quit patting ourselves on the back -- or kicking ourselves in the lower back – and ask Him to keep loving and forgiving us.
And then we have to believe He is doing it.