THE SECRET OF TRUE WORSHIP
Sir 35:12-14,16-18; 2Tim 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
In the business world, competition is a good thing. We watch commercials and advertisement of products, portraying the one as better than the other. We see this in television; we hear it on radio; and we read it in the newspapers. Each product is made to stand out as the best in order that it always stays on the top. In fact, no business would say that its product is not good; every one of them is proclaimed the “BEST”. In matters concerning spiritual life, “competition” and “comparison” are not hailed as in the business world. It several cases, competition portrays an attitude of self-pride, and an attempt to run down and humiliate others. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus condemns such a spirit of unhealthy competition and comparison in the spiritual sphere.
The gospel reading is a parable about two believers, a Pharisee and a tax collector. It is important to underline the facts that both men were believers in the same God, both belonged to the same religion and both worshipped in the same temple. Both men were active believers who participated in temple worship and said their daily prayers. But what do we see? At the end of the worship one of them went home at peace with God but the other did not. The Pharisee is found to praise himself so much (like an advertisement praises a product) to the detriment of the Tax-collector. God frown at this behaviour.
- WHO ARE THE PHARISEES?
It will help us to appreciate the point of this parable if we try to understand a little bit more of who the Pharisees were. It often comes to us as a surprise to hear that the Pharisees were, in fact, very disciplined and devout men of religion. Pharisees were serious-minded believers who had committed themselves to a life of regular prayer and observance of God’s Law. In fact, they went beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, even though the law only required people to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement. They gave tithes of all their income and not just of the required parts. When the Pharisee in the parable said, “I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11-12), he was not joking. Few Christians today can measure up to the visible moral standards of the Pharisees.
Luke tells us that Jesus directed His parable to people characterized by two qualities: they were confident of their own righteousness (they thought they were people in good standing with God)’ and they looked down on, or felt superior, to others. In Jesus’ parable the Pharisee is just such a person. He prayed about (or to) himself.
First, this Pharisee was confident in his relationship with God because he was quite an outstanding fellow. He was not really praying to God; he was playing to the crowd. This man’s concern for going to the temple was for everyone to see how good and how holy he was. He was not concerned about meeting God. He was concerned that others get the chance to meet him! This man was doing his duty as he always did and felt that God was certainly proud of him for doing so. Let us not get things wrong. As said earlier, this man, like any Pharisee, did good things. He knew the rituals and performed them outstandingly. However, when he came to prayer he did not seek God. Instead, he promoted himself! He recites his resume!
Secondly, we notice that the man compared himself to others. He does this in order to feel good about his own life. This is something that we do quite often, consciously or unconsciously. People find someone who is having more trouble or appears to be worse than they; and they compare themselves with that person. As a result, they feel righteous and holy by comparison. In this case, the Pharisee congratulated himself for not being “like the robber, evil-doers and adulterers…or even the tax-collector (who was universally hated).” Had it been today, he might said, “I am not a murderer, rapist, embezzler of public funds, a fayman or terrorist. I have been faithful to my spouse, I do not take government handouts, and I do not cheat on my taxes”. By these standards he would certainly look good!
- WHO ARE THE PUBLICANS OR TAX COLLECTORS?
The Publicans or Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. Because tax collectors worked for the pagan Romans, mixed up with them and constantly handled their unclean money, they were said to be in a state of ritual uncleanliness. As far as the religion of the day was concerned, tax collectors were public sinners on the highway to hell. But the tax collectors knew that the voice of people is not always the voice of God. They still hoped for salvation, not on the merit of any religious or moral achievements of theirs, but on the gracious mercy of God.
The parable of Jesus tells us that the Pharisee was not the only one present at the temple that day. There is also the tax-collector. (Lk 18:13). While the Pharisee was on the platform “performing”, the tax-collector was in the back feeling very unworthy to approach the Lord of Life. The Pharisee looked upward and trumpeted his own goodness; the tax-collector kept his eyes low (in shame) and beat on his chest in a sign of anguish and sorrow. The Pharisee felt he deserved God’s blessing, the tax-collector knew he had no right to ask God for anything. The tax-collector “threw himself on the mercy of the court”. He knew his only hope was for God to extend mercy and grace to him.
One may wonder what brought this tax-collector to the temple. He knew that people hated him. Probably, he may have run out of excuses and justifications for his life. Perhaps he had spent his life excusing his behavior saying,
v “It’s just the way I am”
v “A man has to make a living”
v “I’m not really hurting anybody”
v “You just don’t understand the pressure I’m under”
His excuses kept guilt away for a long time but now he saw them for what they were: empty attempts to avoid the truth. This tax-collector’s life was empty. He was far from God and the only thing he knew to do was come to the temple (where God was said to dwell) and beg for God to show him mercy.
- JESUS’ CONCLUSION
Jesus ends up by exposing certain illusions: “I tell you that this man (the tax-collector), rather than the other (the Pharisee), went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:14). If Jesus had stopped the parable without this conclusion, the lessons learnt from the parable might have been very different. One would have been tempted to think the Pharisee was an upright believer (even if we really did not like him), believing that this is the kind of man God wants us all to be. As we listen to the prayer of the tax-collector, one may have concluded that God would not listen to the prayer of such a “non-God-fearing man”. After all, we can recall how many times have we seen someone come into our own churches and we asked, “What is he/she doing here?”
Instead, Jesus stunned the crowd. He said the Pharisee, the self-righteous performer, went home perhaps feeling quite smug and proud of himself. He wanted the applause of human beings and it is possible that he received it. But that is all he received. The tax-collector, on the other hand, did not receive any applause (or even a warm welcome) yet Jesus said, he was made right (or justified) with God. He was granted forgiveness. He came in as a rebel against God and left as part of the family of God.
God’s principle is simple: Until we recognize that we are sinful people in need of mercy and grace, we cannot see God! We must recognize in a very practical sense that we are NOT God. Yes, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” St. Paul said, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15). It with this spirit that St. Paul addresses his message to Timothy in today’s Second Reading. He was called the apostle of grace because he was so aware of his own need for grace. He was humble because He kept the focus on the Lord and not how he compared to others. This is the humility we need. It did not matter to Paul what other people said about him. The only thing that mattered was what Christ would say about him on the last day.
- SOME PRACTICAL POINTS TO TAKE HOME
- a) Believing in God does not really save anybody. James tells us that the devil himself believes in God and trembles with fear (James 2:19). Rather, what really matters is what people believe ABOUT GOD and how their faith in God affects their view of themselves and of others. The Pharisees believed in a discriminating God who loves good people and hates bad people. You would realize that PEOPLE BEHAVE LIKE THE GOD THEY BELIEVE IN. For this reason, the Pharisees quickly learnt to love only good people like themselves and look down with contempt on bad people and sinners like the tax collector. Jesus tells this parable against the Pharisees because they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” Lk 18:9). The tax collector, on the other hand, trusted not in himself or in anything he had done but only in God’s mercy. This is the man who went home at peace with God and not the self-righteous Pharisee.
- b) There is Good News for us all!God does not expect us to be perfect before we come to Him. He knows we are flawed people and he is willing to take us as we are and begin the process of leading us in the direction of healing and new life. We do not have to “be better” before we can come to Him. We simply need to want to change and be willing to trust Him.
- c) At some point, we have to ask, which of the two should we follow, the Pharisee or the tax collector? We cannot condemn the Pharisee in a sweeping manner. He follows the law of God faithfully. He makes the Lord’s Day holy. He teaches us how to fast and to sacrifice. Therefore, he is worth being an example to be followed in that respect. However, any good Christian must avoid his conceited attitude, pride and his sickness. As for the tax collector, we can also follow him only to a certain extent. We reject his abusive behaviour, his failure to follow the law of God because he stole and extorted from the people. But we can follow his humility and his contrition. A person who knows how to be humble is ready to accept constructive criticism. He/she does not hide his/her wrongdoings, but is willing to change for the better.
- d) Prayer that flows from pride, arrogance and self-righteousness will always be rejected by God. Several biblical texts prove this to be true: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6; Proverbs 3:34). While prayer that flows from sincerity, humility and repentance will always be acceptable, pleasing and holy to the Lord. As the First Reading would tell us: “he 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.” (Sir. 35: 20-22).
- e) Finally, we are called to be aware of “performing” rather than “worshipping God”.It is easy to “play the game”. We can easily learn the songs, the postures, the things to say. We can play given parts and deceive others. We can even deceive ourselves. It is good to evaluate why we do what we do, for instance, when we attend Holy Mass, when we pray, sing, listen to the Word of God, give alms, make donations, or do acts of charity to those in need. Do we really serve the Lord in these acts or we “play for an audience”? The battle for spiritual sincerity and genuineness is one we must pursue constantly. It is natural for one to spend time trying to prove to people that we are valuable, likeable, smart, witty and capable. But if one is not watchful, the end-result is a pretentious faith rather than a genuine relationship with God.
Like the Pharisee and the tax collector we too have come to God’s house to offer worship and prayers, with the hope that we too would go home at the end of this service reconciled and at peace with God. May the Lord, God, purify our motives, open our hearts to a acknowledge of our sinfulness, and entrust ourselves to his generous mercy!