30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
That is some prayer the Pharisee says. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.” Can you imagine if the opening prayer was like that? “O God, we thank you that we are not like the rest of humanity – mean, rotten and smelly. Or even like the fourth person in the third pew.” Nobody prays like that, at least I hope no one prays like that. The Pharisee even goes on to brag that he fasts twice a week and pays a tithe on all his income; doing more than the law requires of him. As if God would not already know that! The key to understanding the Pharisee’s prayer is that he, “spoke this prayer to himself.” The Greek, like the English, might mean that he prayed quietly to himself. Or perhaps he was the object of his own prayer, the one who receives the praise and glory because God seems rather ancillary. This prayer is about himself.
So what can we learn from this prayer? I do not think for a moment he lied in the prayer. I am sure he fasted and tithed as he claimed. I am confident he did not commit the sins he named. Certainly, he was glad not to be the tax collector. What is wrong is that it lacked humility. What is wrong is that is lacked need, and that is place for us to reflect for we are not comfortable being needy, to dwell on what we lack. We can name our sinful actions easily enough, but how often do we go to those deeper, darker places as to the motivations of our sins – the anger, hurt and fear that drives us. We are called to put our brokenness before God for our need is the space God uses to enter and change our lives. Once we place our brokenness and pain before the Lord, healing can begin and the light can dispel the darkness, hope emerges from the fear and peace overshadows our turmoil.
Of course we can do the opposite of the Pharisee and list all our ailings and shortcomings to God without any real hope our God can transform them. A litany of woes does little to alleviate the pain unless we trust that our God is a healer of our ills, the bringer of joy into our lives. Allow God to be merciful at mass. As the gifts of bread and wine are transformed into something so perfect as the body and blood of Christ, we can place our brokenness and pain, our failures and shortcomings, what we are not now and what we have never been on the same table and ask God to make these wounds beautiful as well.
That is why the prayer of the Pharisee is perfect. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It admits the need – “I am a sinner,” but is still reliant and trusting in God’s mercy. As a matter of fact it is the basis of an option for the Act of Contrition. Did you even know there were options? Well it goes “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Just ten short words that is easily memorizable. I would not mind hearing that more often in the sacrament of reconciliation rather than stumbling through and trying to remember such a long prayer. After twenty years, I would like it if did not have to hear people say they are HARDLY sorry for having offended thee.
Instead, let us be as humble as the tax collector and place before the Lord all that is broken with faith in his mercy. For when our great need meets God’s power, we open the door for grace to flood in. So let us close with an Act of Contrition. “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”