The scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has a very telling comment about today’s Gospel passage, which centers on the parable of the self-righteous pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Johnson says: “For Luke, prayer is faith in action. Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one’s relationship with God. It is that relationship with God.”
This is a very striking parable, one that gets me every time. It challenges the hearers to examine themselves in such a way as to confront with honesty the truth that (a) we are indeed all sinners and (b) that it is far too common a human trait to be like the pharisee, to “pray” to God by looking out of the corner of our eyes and seeing those against whom we compare ourselves with despising or scorning (exoutheneo) glances and judgments.
How often do we find ourselves in the place of “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised/scorned everyone else?” My sense is that, if you’re like me, more often than we’d like to admit.
In addition to the offensive self-righteousness of the pharisee, we have other themes that arise in subtle yet significant ways here.
First, we must ask about the pharisee — and, by proxy, ask about ourselves — according to what are others being judged as sinful, or “greedy, dishonest, adulterous” as the pharisee in Jesus’s parable puts it? The pharisee (and many of us) appears to contradict himself in his prayer. On the one hand, he’s presuming God is a judge before whom he must make his case by highlighting the ways he is accordingly righteous. On the other hand, if God is the judge, then what business does the pharisee have casting a verdict on the tax collector? See, Jesus does not deny that God is the judge, but as the Gospel from last week, which immediately precedes today’s in Luke’s account of the Good News, presents to us — God’s behavior as judge is far more generous and responsive than even the most surprising turn of generosity on the part of the so-called wicked judge who eventually hears the voiceless, recourse-less widow and grants her justice.
The pharisee wants God to be the sort of judge that fits his distorted worldview that is entirely self-serving, he wants God to render condemnatory judgment on those the pharisee has already judged as sinful, wrong, despised, and so forth. But Jesus warns his hearers, using a passive construction in the Greek that signals it is indeed God’s action and not the individual agents, that those who put themselves up like the pharisee are in for a terrifying surprise.
Second, there is some truth about what the pharisee presumes about the tax collector, at least that’s how Jesus conveys it to us through the very words of contrition and shame found on the lips of the self-acknowledged sinner. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” he says. And he’s right.
The odd thing here is that no one disputes — the pharisee, the tax-collector, Jesus — that the tax collector is a sinner. The only contentious question in this parable is whether or not anyone can stand before God and proclaim his or her righteousness. What makes what the pharisee says wrong is that he too is a sinner, he too is in need of mercy. But his prayer becomes one of misplaced self-confidence, of certitude of goodness or righteousness on account of his relative social standing to the tax-collector. But what might God have to say about this?
The Wisdom of Ben-Sira in the First Reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) helps flesh this out for us.
The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.
We are reminded that God is not interested in a prosecutorial presentation of how great we are or why we are in need of answered prayers, admittance to heaven, or some other personal notion of salvation. No, God is interested in hearing “the one who serves God willingly,” the one who is humble and honest and truthful about where he or she stands. And the truth is, like Pope Francis himself admitted in his America magazine interview, we are all sinners, we are all the tax-collectors. But we so often act like the pharisee, if not in our direct prayers to God, then at least in our thoughts and actions.
One of the overlooked aspects of today’s readings is the true meaning of prayer and how it can be so easily co-opted for selfish and harmful purposes, used to justify judgment and discrimination that is said to have come from God but really only comes from the minds and mouths of human beings, of other sinners.
The pharisee shows us how not to pray. He makes prayer about himself and not, as Jesus taught his disciples, about God’s will being done.
Conversion, turning around, is what God calls us to do in prayer. To recognize, own, and confess to God “what we have done and what we have failed to do” so that we don’t just stay in the place of our own imperfection and finitude, but move toward action and justice. Those who admit their sinfulness, who with Pope Francis identify themselves as sinners, are able to meet the other, to extend a hand of understanding, and to offer an embrace of solidarity. Unlike the pharisee who has no need to be around “such people,” we are meant to be God’s hands and feet and heart in our world to, as the Psalm says, “hear the cry of the poor” and respond to those in need.
When the just cry out, the Lord hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them (Psalm 34).
How does God rescue the just from their distress? Through us.
But if we’re too busy making our prayer only an argument to God about how good we are, how righteous we are, how much better we are than others, we won’t be able to hear the cry of the poor and we won’t be able to be Christians. The time will come, then, when we will be humbled.