Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount with the words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is something everyone of good will would want and desire. Jesus announces this kingdom in the beginning of his public ministry when he says: “Repent and believe in the Gospel for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
God’s reign is about to begin. He establishes a kingdom of peace and justice, love and mercy. In giving the beatitudes, Jesus invites us to consider that the first step toward the kingdom is to be “poor in spirit.”
The Gospel passage today illustrates that poverty of spirit, which can also be called humility. Jesus sets up a poignant contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector. The mention of these two men by their background and not by name could led us to certain assumptions about their lives and positions in society. Of course, we need to be careful avoid being prejudiced one way or the other when considering this. One manner of looking at the contrast is that of appearances versus reality. The Pharisee, a Jewish man, would have been known to be steeped in the law of Moses and deeply familiar with the particular laws of the covenant. He would likely have been seen as observant and religious, and as a leader of the people.
The tax collector was also a Jewish man. In his role, he would have been seen as a collaborator with the Romans. To some extent, he would have held a position of authority among the people. He would have had more wealth than the average person. He would also have been seen as an outcast among many of the faithful. His profession had a reputation for corruption and theft.
The contrast Jesus makes between the two goes contrary to what the public opinion of the day would have prescribed. The basis of the contrast is their manner of prayer. How does each approach God?
The Pharisee seems to go before God standing straight and tall. He is a proud man who is confident of himself and his manner of life. He seems to look at God face-to-face while he looks down on others, particularly the tax collector who dares not raise his eyes to God. He offers thanks, but it is more a thanksgiving for himself than a praise of God for his goodness. He extols himself, which makes his works of charity a fulfillment of a law rather than an act of love. In a certain sense, the Pharisee seems to see himself as king rather than God.
In contrast, the tax collector is on his knees seeking God’s mercy. He recognizes the God from whom all good things come. In the presence of the One who is good, he realizes his need for mercy. He then acknowledges the One who can offer that gift. The tax collector sees himself as a servant before the king seeking his gracious mercy.
Jesus is clear about who has the right position before God when he says: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The tax collector offers his prayer from a heart burning with love. God’s mercy fuels that fire, hence the tax collector’s plea. Sirach reminds us that this type of prayer does not go unheard: “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.”
The example of the tax collector invites us to consider our stance before God. How do I approach him in prayer? Do I recognize his goodness and his mercy? How do I express my thanksgiving or my plea?
Our prayer before the Lord involves our whole self. Poverty of spirit opens the door of our hearts to him.
St. Paul is an example of someone who has allowed that fire to consume him. As the passage from Second Timothy begins, we might think Paul is being haughty not humble as he says: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.”
Yet when we look closely at his words and life, this statement is an expression of faith not in himself, but in the God who loves him. Paul writes as one near the end of his life. His proclamation of the Gospel has brought joy to countless people who now know the risen Lord and the kingdom he established. At the same time, he has encountered endless hurdles and obstacles, as well as bodily and spiritual turmoils in service of the Lord. Some he has overcome, others he has endured. Yet he does not see the source of his strength as coming from himself. Rather, everything comes from the Lord.
Paul recognizes that he has remained faithful; however, the victory is not his but the Lord’s. So he writes: “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Being “poor in spirit” opens us to the love of God and the transformation of our lives. The prayer of the tax collector has become the basis of a simple prayer of the heart that for many Christians has helped opened the door to divine love. The prayer sometimes called the “Jesus Prayer” is based on the words of the humble tax collector: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The prayer has been used by many as a doorway to meditating on God’s love and an opening for hearing his word in the Scriptures. The words are repeated slowly in tune with the inhale-exhale motion of breathing. As the person breathes in “Lord Jesus,” he or she is able to exhale a proclamation of praise, “Son of God.” As the person breaths in the plea “have mercy on me,” he or she pours out contrition as “a sinner.” Some may find this method a helpful way to come before God in prayer, one that is simple but helps open one’s heart to poverty of spirit, and to find in that poverty the riches of God’s kingdom.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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