James D. McBurney, O.S.A.
Retreat Ministry and Spiritual Direction
Church of Our Mother of Good Counsel
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Sir 35: 12-14; 16-18
Ps 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
2 Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18
Lk 18: 9-14
St. Augustine writes in Sermon 169: “Do not be content with what you are if you want to become what you are not yet; for where you have grown pleased with yourself, there you will remain.” The temptation to grow pleased with one’s status, title or image of self is real for all of us. These words of St. Augustine came to my mind as I thought about the difference of attitude between the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s Gospel. We are told that both people went up to the temple “to pray.” What did they hope to accomplish in their prayer and worship? What do we notice in the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector?
The Pharisee has an elevated image of himself. So pleased with himself, he fails to recognize his need for God. His prayer is simply a list of all the good things he has done rather than an honest encounter with God and himself. In contrast, the tax collector recognizes that he is in need of experiencing God’s love and mercy. He is a sinner. Further, he lets the awareness of this reality of his life become his prayer, leading Jesus to tell us that it is this one who “went home justified.” The words of Jesus remind us that God is concerned not so much with what we have done or not done, how good or bad we might really be, but rather God is more concerned that we are open and humble enough to admit our need for God and to allow His saving, freeing grace to enter our lives and transform us. Thus “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It is also worth noting that today’s Gospel follows a focus on prayer which has been a recurring theme in the Gospels of the three previous Sundays. Each of those Gospels offered us some thought on prayer. In these weeks, we have moved from praying with mustard seed-sized faith to … gratitude in prayer, as witnessed by the healed leper to … the necessity of praying always without becoming weary. Today, we see the importance of the disposition of humility in prayer. The humble and honest prayer of the tax collector reveals his true self. His example serves as a reminder to us that with and in humility we are invited to begin and end all prayer.
What other thoughts does this Gospel raise for us? What lessons might we take from it? Is there some area of your life where you have grown pleased with yourself? Where are you being called to greater honesty with God, self and others? As we celebrate Eucharist and continue this day, may these questions guide our prayer.