“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…” (Luke 18.9-14)
An earthquake rocked the whole town. Many people died and found themselves waiting at the Pearly Gates. The good guys, obviously, just couldn’t wait for that triumphant moment when Saint Peter would usher them in heaven with joy and admiration for all the good works they had done on earth. The bad guys, those who were chronically sinful, just felt dejected that their life had been such a mess and that now they had no way to retrieve it. Their only hope was that Saint Peter would have a sleep-in that morning and so they would avoid at least half an hour of the fire of hell. Suddenly a rumor came out which spread around like wild-fire. “God was going to forgive everyone that morning. Everyone was going in!” The ‘bad guys’ were jubilant! They started dancing and singing. After all only they … and God… knew how much they had already suffered because of their sins. Sin stinks! The ‘good guys’ however were just furious. They were fuming! “This is not fair. If only we knew beforehand that God was going to forgive everyone, we would have had our own share of fun while on earth.” You see they believed – so stupid they were – that sin is fun! And the more they grumbled, the more they protested.. the lower they went…
A simple story. A real eye opener!
Two Pray-ers. Two players
“Two men went up into the temple to pray.” A pharisee and a tax collector. The pharisee was the ‘good guy’, the OK guy! He wasn’t like the other guys. He even fasted twice a week and tithed regularly.
He had only one problem! He was impressed with his own virtues. This man stood and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector…” He was obviously well impressed with himself. He felt that he should even thank God for his ability to create such a remarkable specimen of humanity.
So little did he know himself! So little do we know ourselves! Perhaps this lethal virus of pharisaism has infected also many of our church goers. You know the attitude. “I live a decent life; I desire no harm to anyone, I do not crave other people’s possessions. I did not kill anybody, I did not steal anything from anyone. I go to church regularly! I’ll do my best and let God do the rest.”
Trying to be good at all costs. To appear good all costs. Every day we sign ourselves a certificate of good conduct. I am not as bad as I sometimes may appear. OK, I got angry today but after who would not get angry with a wife like this? OK I was lustful today but with all this provocative clothes which girls wear today, who wouldn’t be lustful today? OK I do not pray a lot, but with all the pressures today and with the two, three jobs which I have to cover all my expenses, who has time to pray?
What triggers this mechanism of self righteousness? Very simple really. We have understood early in life that no one accepts a bad guy. The bad guy is always left aside. No one loves a mean, selfish, lazy, lustful, greedy man. Everyone loves the good guy – the charming, generous, talented, resourceful guy. And so we try hard to be the good guy. Since many times we do not succeed, we wear masks – different masks for different situations. What makes it worse is that we believe that this same mechanism works with God. We believe that we have to merit the love of God. We have to be good to be loved by God… This is what the Pharisee thought. This is what many of us think.
A couple of days ago I was inviting this guy to come back to church and he was telling me that he does not feel worthy to come and mix with these good people because he was still frequenting regularly call girls and he was dating an exotic dancer. What a pity! We have made the Church look like a club for good people, for real gentlemen and real ladies… while the Church was meant to be a place for sinners… a hospital for sick people!
It is all a lie. The simple truth is that we have no virtues of our own, none whatsoever. All this talk about self affirmation is very dangerous! If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we are bankrupt. Everything that we have is given. And if perhaps I never committed murder, it is not because I am better than the ones who kill. Simply God never put me in a position to kill someone. If I have never committed adultery, it is not because I am better than anyone who did. Simply God had enormous mercy on me and put both His hands on my head and helped me avoid this. I know. I would have done the same if I was in the same circumstances. And if I have never asked a girl to commit abortion, believe me, it is not because I am better than those who find themselves committing abortion. It is only because God had mammoth compassion with me… We forget so easily God’s shielding grace that has saved us from some of the terrible things others have fallen into and we even dare to look down on them.
The tax collector knew it . He knew he was a despicable creature, a sinner. He could not hide his reality not even to himself. Neither did he feel the need to cover his reality to God. He knew who God was. He understood the character of God. God loves sinners. He does not demand that they first change in order that He may deign to love them. He loves messes. He loves the jumble mumble who is me!
That is why his prayer is so true. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He does not even try to add anything by way of merit. He does not even say ‘an honest sinner’ or a ‘repentant sinner’ or ‘a contrite sinner’. No he simply accepts the fact that he is what he is – a flop, a fiasco. But he knows that God loves flops, loves fiascoes. He loved Jacob a cheater, He loved David a murderer, He loved Samson a womanizer. He loves you and me, a real catastrophe!
What saves us is not our character but the character of God. We do not need to wear ourselves out by putting on any more masks because God who knows us deeply, loves us deeply. God loves selfish people, mean people, abominable people.
Thus prayer stops being a narrative of our implied virtues and becomes an expression of our awareness of helplessness that can only be met by God. God is available to the weak, to the sinners, to beggars. “The prayer of the humbles pierces the clouds and it will not rest until it reaches its goal” (Sirach 35, 20).
Two beggars went to a king and pleaded for a coin. “Return tomorrow,” said the king. “Bring a container and I will fill it with coins.” The one man said to himself, “Since I am only a beggar, I will not count for much in the eyes of the king.” So he brought a small cup, and the king filled it with coins. The other beggar thought, “This king is kind and gracious. He will surely be the most generous towards me.” So he brought a large pail, and the king filled it with coins.
We are the beggars; God is the king. If when we seek God’s favors, we expect to be treated according to our virtues, we force God to ration the very gifts we seek. If, on the other hand, we realize our unworthiness and at the same time acknowledge of God’s goodness, God will live up to our high expectations and load us with a superabundance of gifts. He will even forgive us!
Our confidence lies not in our merits but in God’s character.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.