213. The ABCs of Success (Luke 18:9-17)
“Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin. All hope consists in confession.” – St. Isidore of Seville
Luke 18:9-17: He spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else, ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get. The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’ People even brought little children to him, for him to touch them; but when the disciples saw this they turned them away. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’
Christ the Lord God has the right to be Lord. He is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and all-loving. He created all things, and he keeps all things in existence. Everything (and everyone) else owes everything to him. Without God, we would not even be able to sin – because to sin, first of all we have to exist, and second of all, we have to possess free will. Without God, who supplies both of these requisites, we are nothing. When we address Christ as “Lord,” we acknowledge this utter dependence on him, and we express our trust that he will continue showering his blessings upon us – not because we deserve them, but because who he is: abounding in generosity and loving-kindness.
When we address Christ as “Lord,” we also acknowledge that he deserves our complete fidelity and obedience. And since we are not completely obedient to God (even the just man falls “seven times” a day, cf. Proverbs 24:16), addressing him as Lord needs to include a confident plea for his mercy. This is the bedrock of all true prayer, because it is the bedrock of the truth about us and about God. In this light, the Pharisee’s sin was much greater than “greed, dishonesty, or adultery”; it was the sin of thinking he didn’t need God, that he was independent of the Lord.
By this standard, the Pharisee was not going to make it into the Kingdom of God, because that requires being like children – serenely aware of our dependence. Children aren’t angels, but they certainly are dependent on their parents, and they know it. This is basic humility and, without it, we can never live in communion with the Lord.
Christ the Teacher Through the centuries, the prayer of the publican (i.e., tax collector: a Jew who collaborated with the occupying Roman forces by collecting taxes from fellow Jews, often looked upon as the epitome of infidelity to God and a betrayer of the Covenant) has been described as a complete summary of Christian spirituality. There are even cases of monks who made this prayer the only words that they spoke, and who reached the heights of sanctity by means of it.
- First of all, it recognizes God’s greatest quality – in relation to fallen mankind, that is – his mercy. Mercy is the form love takes in the face of suffering. The word “mercy” comes from the Latin misericors: miser (wretched, miserable) plus cor (heart) – to take someone else’s wretchedness into one’s heart. Because of original sin, and because of our personal sins, we are miserable creatures, and when we bring our misery to God, he takes it up into his heart.
- Second, the publican’s prayer recognizes his own need: he accuses himself for being a sinner, someone who has abused the gifts of God, someone who has given into selfishness.
The Pharisee’s prayer shows no knowledge either of God’s mercy or of his own need for God. In truth, it is no prayer at all – there is no connection between God and the one who is praying: it is just an exercise in narcissism, in self-admiration. God wants to connect with us, but he can only do so if we let him.
Christ the Friend Jesus went after the big sinners – you don’t get much bigger than “people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.” He didn’t just preach to the choir (which, in fact, is why his enemies had to have him killed; his influence was simply becoming too widespread). This shows how much he cared about others, and how little he worried about himself. If he had been after comfortable self-satisfaction, he would never have gone after big sinners. This is confirmed by our own experience: when we don’t go after those who need Christ most, isn’t it because we care more about our own comfortable self-satisfaction than about expanding Christ’s Kingdom?
His concern for big sinners also gives us another reason to trust him without limits. No sinner is too big for Christ’s mercy. His mercy is infinite, like an ocean; even the greatest sins are finite, like a thimble. How foolish we would be to think our thimble was too deep for his ocean!
Christ in My Life You are my Lord. I understand what that means – I owe everything to you. You hold my entire existence in the palm of your hand. You never cease thinking of me and drawing me closer to you. You are my Lord, but you are also my Father, my Brother, and my Friend. Jesus, I trust in you…
I ask you to have mercy on me, for all the selfishness I know about, and for all the selfishness I’m unaware of. And I ask you to have mercy on all sinners. It is your mercy that makes your glory shine! Teach me to confide in your mercy no matter what, and to be merciful, forgiving, gentle, and meek – especially with those who don’t deserve it…
Pour your courage into my heart, Lord. I am hampered in my apostolate and my testimony because I still care too much about what other people will think. I’m glad you didn’t give in to those temptations. Teach me to be adventurous in building your Kingdom and spreading it, even to the “big sinners” who seem so hopeless…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. The Pharisee and the Publican, James Tissot, 1886-1894, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less.
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