Jesus offers the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as a basis for contrasting pride and humility. As we read or listen to the parable, the contrast is clear. The Pharisee represents pride. The tax collector represents humility. The Pharisee is wrapped up in himself. In his own view he lifts himself up while lowering those around him, especially, as he notes, the tax collector.
The tax collector on the other hand lowers himself before God, kneeling down, not praising himself but begging that God’s mercy be poured out on him.
The contrast highlights the importance of humility. Humility allows one to recognize the need for God’s mercy and our dependence on it. The tax collector’s prayer cuts to the heart of our relationship with God. We are sinners in need of mercy. We depend on God’s mercy. It was through mercy that we were created. It was through mercy that we have been redeemed.
The tax collector recognizes his need of God’s mercy. His prayer is simple yet profound: “O God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is truly humble before the Lord and subjects himself to God’s merciful love.
At another time, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God” (Mt. 5:3). The tax collector gives us a good example of being “poor in spirit.” At the heart of the prayer is his recognition that he not only wants God’s mercy, but he needs God’s mercy. All that he has and is comes from God. His life has meaning because of God. He also recognizes that he is dependent on God’s mercy for life. So his prayer, simple as it may seem, is quite profound.
Being poor in spirit opens one to the Kingdom of God. The opening allows God’s grace to work in the person’s life, transforming it, enriching it, strengthening it.
The first reading and responsorial psalm for Sunday’s liturgy reminds us that “God hears the cry of the poor.” The passage from Sirach puts it this way: “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 might think of this in terms of a child calling out to his or her parent in need. “Daddy, daddy,” the child cries from the other room. The father rushes in to help the child. Jesus speaks often of the Father’s concern for us, his children. For example, He says: “What Father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?” (Luke 11:11-12)
God is compassion and love. When we come to him in humility we come as his children seeking his help, wisdom, consolation and strength. It is in this sense that we are called to be “child-like.”
Paul, in the Second Letter to Timothy, speaks of God’s goodness to him. He humbly recognizes that it was through the grace of God that he has “finished the race.” He does not claim victory for himself but acknowledges the true source of his triumph. This might sound strange being that Paul is on his way to martyrdom. Certainly in the eyes of unbelievers Paul does not triumph. He is killed.
Yet in faith his death is a victory. He shares in the cross of Christ and the victory which is Christ’s is share with him. He says: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength … the Lord will rescue me from every threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.”
In this Paul recognizes that he does not “earn” life in the Kingdom, which when compared with the prayer of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable provides another rich contrast, it is a gift of the Lord. The end of which is a prayer of humble thanks and praise: “To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.