This Sunday’s gospel (30th, OT) continues Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the eighteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus proposes another parable that invites us to reflect on the proper attitude and manner of prayer – and on what is improper Jesus briefly describes two figures who enter the temple to pray. The first is a Pharisee, a member of a religious group in Jesus’ time that took religious practice and spirituality very seriously. We immediately sense something is amiss in the Pharisee’s prayer because he prays not to God . . . but "to himself"! While the Pharisee begins by expressing thanksgiving to God, his "prayer" is peppered with the word "I." Glancing over at the tax collector, the Pharisee self-righteously takes it upon himself to condemn the former, thus setting himself in God’s place as judge. His "prayer" is, in all actuality, a self-encomiastic recitation of his own accomplishments. Indeed, the Pharisee doesn’t ask God for anything – neither for assistance nor for mercy. There is no room in his heart for God’s gracious assistance or for compassion for others. Recall that Jesus’ parables are intended to both inform and challenge. It’s easy, in hearing this gospel, to distance ourselves from the Pharisee. But notice that if we do so – thinking, for instance, "I’m glad I’m not like him" – we end up committing the same sin of pride! People who are religiously inclined can easily struggle with self-righteousness and judgmentalism. The second figure in Jesus’ parable is a tax collector. Tax collectors were looked down upon as collaborators and as notoriously dishonest in their collection of tolls. This particular tax collector, however, humbly stands in the back of the temple. He bows his head and, beating his breast in contrition, offers a simple and heartfelt prayer: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." The tax collector acknowledges his need – in this case, for forgiveness – and opens his heart to receive God’s mercy. Jesus then remarks that, of the two figures, it was only the tax collector who "went home justified," for it is "the one who humbles himself [who] will be exalted." Jesus’s parable teaches us several things about prayer: rather than focus on ourselves, we are to place ourselves in God’s presence and turn our attention fully to him; rather than enumerate and boast about our accomplishments, we are to humbly recognize that we are in need of God’s grace; and rather than judge and condemn others, we are to confess our own sinfulness and ask for his mercy. Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.
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