Perhaps we have never thought of prayer as a matter of confrontation. However, one of the great saints of our past looked at the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in just that light. The Pharisee and the tax collector were both at prayer:
Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
The parable appears only in St. Luke’s Gospel and is part of his theme of “reversal” of fortune. Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, St. Luke continues to emphasize that the great of this world will be the least in the next, and vice versa.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of this parable by asking us to consider what happens when we confront our neighbor, ourselves and God in prayer. He was of the opinion that when we confront the reality of our neighbor, we should arrive in the land of charity. When we confront ourselves in prayer, we should arrive in the land of humility. When we confront the reality of God in prayer, we should arrive in the land of mercy. Of course the Pharisee makes none of these journeys. His prayer does not characterize him as a man of charity, humility or mercy. The tax collector, on the other hand, by admitting who he is in relationship with God and his neighbor reaches all three destinations.
Another way of looking at this parable is to say: “Two men went up the temple area to pray; one did while the other didn’t.” There is nothing in the Pharisees words that are even remotely akin to prayer. He stands before God justifying himself rather than allowing God’s mercy to enter his life.
Just yesterday we received the news that Pope Francis has declared an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy to begin on December 8 of this year. The news reports have consistently pointed out that this has been a favorite theme of the Holy Father ever since his election two years ago. God’s mercy has been dripping from his lips almost every time he speaks. We have seen videos of him going to confession himself as well as hearing confessions. We have heard him time and again tell us that mercy is what defines who God is. Conversely, the lack of mercy defines who we are. Forgiving others is by far the hardest human endeavor there is.
During the last Holy Year in the year of Our Lord 2000, I was privileged to walk through the holy doors of all four of the major basilicas of Rome. These doors are opened with great ceremony on the first day of the Holy Year. The ceremony is meant to remind us that the door to God’s mercy is always open. All we need do is to take the initiative to enter.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator