Freeman Cebu Lifestyle

Sinners that we all are

GUIDING LIGHT - Fr. Benjamin SIM, SJ - The Freeman

Cebu, Philippines —Today’s Gospel parable has deep meaning and no word wasted.  It has a message that challenges and hits the bull’s eye.  Luke makes a little p.s. – “pahabol” – the obvious lesson: Exalt yourself and you will be humbled. Humble yourself and you will be exalted.

But to appreciate the parable we can look at three movements of thought.  First, get the background of the two characters in the parable.  Second, uncover what it is in the prayer of each that turns Jesus on or off.  Third, transfer the parable from Palestine to our own setting, our own temple: Who am I?  And what is my stance towards God?

First, a look at the two characters in the parable:  One is a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. Now it’s important to understand just who these two characters were.  What kind of people they represented.  Otherwise, we may miss the meaning of the story.

When you and I hear the word “Pharisee,” we get bad vibrations.  Call me “pharisaical” and I may get angry.  You may get a punch in the nose!  Because you are calling me a hypocrite:  I am pretending to be what I am not.  I am hung up on externals; I parade my imagined or real virtues. 

But in fairness to the Pharisees, much of their history evokes respect.  Their lifeblood was the Law of Moses.  A Jew would be saved, the nation made holy, only by knowing the law thoroughly and following it exactly: Sabbath and feast days, ritual purity, tithing, dietary rules – all 613 regulations. 

The code may repel us – but never forget that what the Pharisees were trying to make into law was love, loyalty, compassion, and make them inescapable religious obligations. 

What about the other character, the tax collector?  Here too was a Jew, but a Jew whose job was to collect taxes from his fellow Jews – for the Romans.  He was a traitor to his country.  He was collaborator in the payroll of the hated occupation forces.  Even more of a scandal to law-abiding Jews – his job lent itself to abuse, graft and corruption. 

Remember John the Baptist’s advice to the tax collectors: “Collect no more than you are authorized.”  Remember Zacchaeus, the short fellow, a chief tax collector?  He promised, “Behold, Lord… if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 

That is why in the Gospels you find tax collectors lumped together in one breath with sinners.  In Luke 5:30 the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled to Jesus’ disciples: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  Simply not a respectable profession, though you might be as rich as Levi-Matthew.

Second, each of them says something.  Each produces a prayer.  The Pharisee’s prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humankind – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast two days a week, I pay to the temple the ten percent tithe on everything I acquire.”

The tax collector’s prayer is simply a cry for forgiveness, for mercy: “O God, be merciful to me the sinner!” 

And Jesus’ reaction?  The tax collector went home “upright in the sight of God”; the Pharisee was not.  The self-confessed sinner was pleasing to God.  The self-professed saint was not.

But why?  Not because the Pharisee was lying and the tax collector telling the truth, Jesus does not challenge the Pharisee’s facts.  Jesus does not say, “Man, you’re a liar.  You know as well as I do that you rob your neighbor’s pigeon and sleep with his wife, on fast days you secretly eat Peking duck, and you actually give 5 percent to the temple, not 10 percent.” 

No, the parable has bite to it precisely because the Pharisee does every single thing his religion demands of him, and perhaps more.  He observes the Law of Moses and the pious practices of the Pharisees.  Look at what he does and you cannot find fault with him.

Then where was the Pharisee’s fault?  Where did he go wrong?  Listen to the opening sentence of today’s Gospel:  “Jesus spoke this parable addressed to those who believed in their own self-righteousness, while holding everyone else in contempt.”

The parable had for its target a number of Jews (not all of them Pharisees, and not all the Pharisees) with two damnable postures.  They thought that what made them pleasing to God’s sight was their own virtuous activity, a laundry list of good works, and they look with contempt on the rest of human race with arrogant noses, at “sinners and tax collectors” and everyone else who did not duplicate their good deeds.

No, says Jesus, not of such is the kingdom of heaven.  If you want to see what saves, what makes for delight in heaven, look at the tax collector you condemn and contemn.  He is upright before God, because he trusts not in himself but in God, not in any good work that calls for reward, but in God’s gracious goodness, God’s unmerited mercy.

And in begging for mercy, in pleading for forgiveness, he does not contrast himself with anyone else – with the proud Pharisee or the hated Samaritan, with bigger thieves or a hot Middle East Casanova.  He does not dare “lift up his eyes to heaven” and he does not care to comment on any member of the congregation save himself: “O God, be merciful to me the sinner.”

Third stage.  Move the parable from Palestine to your own setting, your own temple.  What does it say to you? 

After all, the parables of Jesus are our parables.  The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is so contemporary, for it raises the shadow of two constant temptations. 

The first temptation is thinking that I save my soul.  Jesus’ parable is addressed to all who attribute to themselves as pleasing to God, all who lift themselves to heaven by their own merit.  It’s true I cannot be saved unless I want to, but even that wanting, that very desire, is God’s grace to me.  It is Jesus who saves.

Now don’t misunderstand the parable.  God will not mind if your prayer of thanksgiving sounds in part like the Pharisee’s: “O God, I thank you for all that I am.  I have such a high IQ.  In looks I score 10.  I never miss Mass on Sundays (despite your boring preachers), I haven’t broken any commandment this year.  I work for the victims of wars, and earthquakes, of typhoons and floods.  I helped the poor and the lonely, the sick, the ‘sungit’ and ‘pangit.’ I even support the parish priest with all kinds of gifts.”

Not a bad prayer, but useless unless you add, day in and day out, “O God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am.”

In your prayer of thanksgiving thank God for His mercy, from the birth of His Son in a stable, through his death on a cross, to his birth in your heart.  Without that mercy, without God’s constant forgiveness, all your work would be worthless.

The second temptation is less subtle, a danger to everyday living.  I compare myself with others.  Throughout history men and women have fallen prey in some measure to the Pharisee’s fault: “I am not like the rest of mankind.” 

Early Christians looked down on the Jews as “rejected by God.” Crusaders looked down on infidels they would massacre.  Protestants and Catholics despised one another.  The upper educated class looks down on the “tsinelas” crowd.  And so on across the spectrum of human living.

Perhaps we can raise our prayer of thanksgiving to a high Christian level:

“O God, I thank you that I am like the rest of humankind. 

I thank you that like everyone else, I too have been shaped

in your image, with a mind to know and a heart to love.

I thank you that, like everyone else, I too was embraced

by the crucified arms of your Son.  I too have him for a brother. 

I thank you that you judge me, like everyone else,

not by my brains or looks, my clothes, the figures of my bank account, the size of my house and the model of my car,

but by the love that is your gift to me,

by the way I share the passion of your Christ. 

I thank you that, for all our thousand differences,

I am remarkably like the people all around me.

I thank you for letting me see that

there is a little of the Pharisee in me,

that I too have this very human yearning

for something that sets me apart from the rest.

If I am to thank you for making me different,

let it be because through your mercy,

I am different from what I would have been

without you. 

Thank you, Lord, for making me so splendidly

the same as everyone else,       

because it means I am that much closer to your Son,

who became what all of us are:

wonderfully and fearfully human. 

Keep me that way, Lord, and…

always be merciful to me, sinner that I am.”  


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