March 9, 2002 – Saturday of the 3rd Week of Lent
Monastery of Makkiyad, Kerala, India
At the beginning of every Eucharistic celebration we confess our sins and we ask the Lord for his forgiveness. Is this always more than a mere religious formality? Are we always sincerely aware of being sinners? Of course we know that we have all committed sins; but usually we have accused those sins in confession and we know that they have been forgiven by God even before we accused them, if we really regretted them. But to be a sinner is different from having committed sins. Maybe, rather than being aware of being sinners we are aware of being reasonably good Christians and not too bad nuns or monks.
It is very dangerous to be a good Christian and maybe still more dangerous to be a good nun or a good monk. It is to good people like us that Christ said that the prostitutes and the publicans will precede them in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Gospel of today speaks to us about a publican, or tax‑collector, and a Pharisee. What was a publican? The publicans were Jews who accepted to work as civil servants for the Roman authorities, at a time when Judea was under the domination of the Roman invaders. They were considered as public sinners, because they accepted an authority other than the one established by Yahweh, and were therefore traitors to their own people, and also because they were known as thieves, since, in collecting the taxes, they knew how to make up for the too small salary they received from the Romans.
Luke tells us that both the Pharisee and the Publican went up to the temple in order to pray. The Pharisee really prayed; and his prayer could easily be considered humble by our standards. He thanked God for the grace he had received of being a good man: "I thank you Lord for not being like all of those sinners..." He prayed the God out there. The Publican did not pray the God out there in heaven. He did not dare to rise his eyes to heaven. He simply said : "Be merciful on me God, I am a sinner".
Both prayed. The Publican came down from the Temple justified, the Pharisee not. What happened? Why that difference? Both prayed! Was it because the prayer of the second one was better? Maybe. But I think that the real reason for the difference is that they were not praying the same God. We always tend to make God at our own image, a God after our own dimensions, and according to our own needs. The God of the Pharisee was the God who gave him all these virtues and made him better than the rest of man. That God does not exist; it is an idol. The Pharisee did not believe in God; but, as Luke says, he believed in his own righteousness.
The Publican, in his humility and poverty, did not have an image of God. He had not built a God according to his needs. He did not speak up to God. He looked down at himself, he saw his sinfulness, and therefore his need for healing and his capacity for growth, his capacity of receiving new life: "Be merciful". And he received new life. He had found God in the experience of his own sinfulness.
Saint Peter says that we should be ready to give an account of our hope. Let us ask ourselves this morning on what is our hope founded. On the faith in our righteousness or on our faith in God's mercy? Is our faith that of the Pharisee or of the Tax‑collector? Jesus told that parable, says Luke, to "those who believed in their own self‑righteousness!
READING I Hos 6, 1-6
In their affliction, they shall look for me:
"Come, let us return to the Lord,
For it is he who has rent, but he will heal us;
he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.
He will revive us after two days;
on the third day he will raise us up,
to live in his presence.
Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord;
as certain as the dawn is his coming,
and his judgment shines forth like the light of day!
He will come to us like the rain,
like spring rain that waters the earth."
What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your piety is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that early passes away.
For this reason I smote them through the prophets,
I slew them by the words of my mouth;
For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice,
and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.
GOSPEL Lk 18, 9-14
Jesus spoke this parable addressed to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee with head unbowed prayed in this fashion: 'I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men -- grasping, crooked, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess.' The other man, however, kept his distance, not even daring to raise his eyes to heaven. All he did was beat his breast and say, 'O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.' Believe me, this man went home from the temple justified but the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled while he who humbles himself shall be exalted."