“This Gospel that we heard today, we’ve heard many times and I think of it as part 2 of Jesus’ lesson on prayer last week for last week on Sunday we heard the Gospel of the persistent widow and how through nagging the unjust judge she finally received a just award. Out lesson last week: pray unceasingly. Today’s parable Jesus teaches us part two of this two part lesson on prayer: pray with humility always seeking God’s mercy.
In our parable today we may think of the pharisee as a bad guy, but we would be wrong. It’s true that Jesus rebukes the pharisees throughout the Gospels, but we also read about good pharisees- Nicodimus, Joseph of Arimathea and St. Paul was a pharisee. They were esteemed people. A Jewish mother wanted her child to grow up to be a pharisee and our pharisee in today’s Gospel was a moral person. Now the tax collector, on the other hand was the worst of the worst of humanity. He was a Jew who collaborated with the Romans to shake down his fellow Jews and exhort from them taxes that were maybe double or triple of what they should have been and what did he do? He skimmed off the top and lived lavishly and the people knew this. As he often does, Jesus turned the tables on his listeners. They would have been shocked to hear that it was the prayer of the tax collector that was heard by God that God justified him, set him right while the pharisee’s prayer if you can call his self-aggrandisement, his boasting a prayer was not heard. If we put this parable in modern day terms substitute a bishop for the pharisee and substitute a drug dealer for the tax collector. It’s the drug dealer’s humble prayer for mercy that is answered and not the bishop’s. It is humility that is the foundation of all virtue. St. Augustine says this about humility. ‘For those who would learn God’s ways humility is the first thing. Humility is the second thing and humility is the third thing. If humility does not proceed’ St. Augustine continues. These are St. Augustine’s words, don’t take it from the Deacon. ‘If humility does not proceed all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.’ You know, Jesus tells us more than once in the Gospels that he did not come for the righteous, but he came for sinners. If we do not recognize that we are sinners and in need of mercy then God will not hear our prayer and it is the prayer of the poor and those who are poor in spirit that God promises to hear. In the first reading from Sirach we hear, ‘The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds and it does not rest until it reaches its goal.’ In the 34th Psalm which we sang here this afternoon, ‘The Lord hears the cry of the poor.’ Most Saturday mornings I drive up to Lansing and Leavenworth and I visit inmates there. The inmates I visit get this. They get this Gospel. They acknowledge that they are sinners and they seek mercy. Now mind you, I don’t visit with all of the prisoners. I visit with those prisoners who have come forward and want to receive Holy Communion and want to fellowship with Catholics. They have hit bottom. One inmate I spoke with yesterday (we had these readings yesterday for on Saturday mornings we celebrate the Sunday Liturgy) and he said ‘This Gospel reminds me of the prayer that I say to myself over and over again. It’s the Jesus Prayer and we know it. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me.’ For we are all sinners. We’re all in need of mercy and forgiveness. The next time we go to confession I challenge you to prepare especially for your examination of conscience perhaps reflect upon this Gospel that we heard today or perhaps even to prepare with the Jesus prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ When we go to confession, pray and confess like the tax collector not the pharisee. Don’t try to explain your sin, the circumstances. Don’t try to mitigate. Humbly, humbly confess your sin to Jesus Christ who is sitting there in persona with the priest and at the conclusion of your confession, don’t just recite the act of contrition, you know the one you memorized when you were 8 years old, ‘Oh my God I am heartily sorry for I have offended thee…’ Now it’s a beautiful prayer. The words are good, but don’t just recite it. Pray it. Reflect upon it. Pray it slowly and from the heart for let us learn from our Gospel today. Let us learn from the tax collector and not the pharisee.”