So, what’s wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer? He’s a good man who
does more than religious obligation requires. He observes the evils
of the world around him and gives thanks to God that he is not part
of it, like "the rest of humanity, greedy dishonest, adulterous…."
He is a very good man. What’s more he thanks God for his good
behavior and upright life. Why, he even exceeds the religious
demands of first century Judaism! His prayer sounds right: a good
man thanking God for his good behavior. What’s the problem? We know
there is a problem because Jesus is obviously telling this parable
with a critical eye towards the good Pharisee.
We also note that in the second reading Paul enumerates his own
accomplishments in the faith, "I have completed well; I have
finished the race, I have kept the faith." In fact, he’s even
looking forward to his reward, "the crown of righteousness awaits
me…." Why isn’t Paul criticized for extolling his good life the way
the Pharisee is?
A real estate friend recently quoted the famous dictum of his
profession, "There are three things that count when buying a house:
location, location and location." We can apply a similar guide to
the two characters in today’s parable. Location is a clue to what is
happening. Notice where the Pharisee and tax collectors are located
as they pray.
The Pharisee went to the Temple, but he isn’t there praying with
his community. He is by himself praying prayers in the first person
singular. His prayer is full of "I’s" – I am not… I fast… I pay
tithes… Etc." He has not come to be with and pray with his Jewish
brothers and sisters. He is not praying for his community, or those
in need. He is detached from anyone else. He has taken up "his
position," and it is not a place that includes others – the needy,
sick, sinners, outcasts etc. He also separates himself spiritually
from others. There was only one required fast each year – the Day of
Atonement. But he fasts twice a week. He is in crediting God for his
laudatory life – at least it seems so, but the prayer’s focus is on
himself, not God. God really doesn’t play any part in his life. He
doesn’t need God at all to be an outstanding and recognized
The tax collector’s location is also apart from others, but for a
different reason. He would have been despised by his community.
After all, tax collectors were Jewish men who made their living, a
very comfortable living, raising taxes from the Jews for the Romans.
Note his grammar. He is not praying in the first person, singular –
"I". He is not the subject of his prayer, God is. God is doing the
work and he is a recipient of God’s mercy. "Oh God, be merciful to
me, a sinner." He is not focusing on his actions, good or bad,
he’s trusting in God’s mercy.
Jesus extols the tax collector’s humility: he knows himself, does
not pretend to be anything other than himself. He relies on God to
do for him what he can’t do for himself, "Oh God, be merciful to me
a sinner." He can’t claim mercy based on his merits. But he can ask
for it because he needs it and trusts God will give it to him.
Jesus’ listeners would have been surprised by this parable. They
would have held the Pharisee in high regard by the evidence of his
life. But the parable presents our proper relationship before God,
not merited by any human action, however grand, but based on God’s
merciful gift of forgiveness.
The parable is a cautionary tale for religious people, especially
those of us in public ministry, ordained or lay. We have to be awake
to our own spiritual poverty. In our service to others in need we
might set ourselves apart serving "them." Not a good "location" for
a disciple of the One who kept company and ate with sinners. The
love of God which we profess can turn into self-love. We can look
upon the gifts we have from God as rewards for our behavior. Like
the Pharisee our prayer can easily become a boast. When the Pharisee
left the Temple that day he may have felt satisfied, but he
certainly wasn’t any different from the person he was when he
entered and began to pray. His prayer was not an openness to God and
the change God might want to bring about in him. He may have felt
content as he left the Temple that day, but his prayer didn’t result
in any growth in his relationship with God. But the tax collector
left changed by God’s grace.
Those of us who might feel our "location" is apart from the
upright members of the church, because we are newcomers, divorced,
gay, unemployed, poor, racially and ethnically apart, need to hear
Jesus’ words about the tax collector. We might not always experience
our worth in the community, but Jesus reminds us of our worth before
God – the humble will be exalted. As a church community we need to
remember Jesus’ words as we look around at the folks physically or
socially in the back pews of our parish church, or the "back pews"
of our local community.
Note Paul’s "location." He’s writing to his disciple Timothy from
prison, anticipating his death. He was ejected, abandoned by his
companions. His trust in God isn’t based on his own merits, but on
the Lord who, "will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring
me safe to his heavenly kingdom." Like the tax collector Paul is not
the subject of the sentence, he is the object, that is, the
recipient of Christ’s graciousness. "To him be glory forever and
ever. Amen." Paul has chosen the right "location" – he is on the
receiving end of God’s graciousness, and he knows it. For that he
continually praises God.
Jesus addressed the parable to "those who were convinced of their
own righteousness." The English word "righteousness" has a negative
sound. We don’t like people who are "self righteous" – like the
Pharisee. But in the Bible a righteous person is in right relations
with God. Isn’t that what we want? Paul is anticipating the "crown
of righteousness" that awaits him. A righteous person has been
faithful to the covenant. Paul credits his righteousness not from
any work he can take credit for, but from his faith in Jesus. That
faith makes him "righteous." He knows it is a gift from God – and so
he is not self-righteous. In the parable who turns out to be
righteous, or just, in God’s eyes? It’s a tax collector who is in
right relations with God, not because of any work he has done, like
the Pharisee’s fasting and tithing, but by God’s gift – a gift he
did nothing to earn.
for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you
fear human judgment, then you will seek to do
----Mechthild of Magdeburg
Lord hears the cry of the poor.
1. Our Catholic social teaching gives preferential treatment to
the poor. With the elections fast approaching, how do the teachings
of our Church, founded on the Word of God, influence our discernment
about choosing elected officials? On July 4th weekend I
published excerpts from the USCCB document, Forming
Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2015 Edition).
I feel they are worth repeating.
As the bishops state, in the introduction to Part 1:
2.The political realities of our nation present us with
opportunities and challenges. . .These challenges are at the heart
of public life and at the center of the pursuit of the common good.
They are intertwined and inseparable. As Pope Francis has insisted,
"We are faced . . . with one complex crisis which is both social and
environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated
approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded,
and at the same time protecting nature" (Laudato Si',
In one section of the text, the bishops ask the question, "What
does the Church say about Catholic social teaching in the public
square?" and then go on to spell out the four permanent principles
by beginning with this quote, "The permanent principles of the
Church’s social doctrine constitute the very heart of Catholic
social teaching. These are the principles of: the dignity of the
human person, . . .the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity.
These principles [are] the expression of the whole truth about man
known by reason and faith . . ." (Compendium of the Social Doctrine
of the Church, no. 160).
The following highlights from the document define these four
44. Human life is sacred. The dignity of the human person is the
foundation of a moral vision for society.
48. The principle of subsidiarity reminds us that larger
institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with
smaller or local institutions, yet larger institutions have
essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot
adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs, and advance the
common good (Centesimus Annus, 48; Dignitatis
49. Human dignity is respected and the common good is fostered
only if human rights are protected and basic responsibilities are
52. "We are one human family, whatever our national, racial,
ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’
and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has
global dimensions and requires us to eradicate racism and address
the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world.
Solidarity also includes the scriptural call to welcome the stranger
among us" and the "preferential option for the poor" (53). 55. These
four principles and related themes from Catholic social teaching
provide a moral framework that does not easily fit ideologies of
"right" or "left," "liberal" or "conservative," or the platform of
any political party. They are not partisan or sectarian, but reflect
fundamental ethical principles that are common to all people.
As leaders of the Church in the United States, the bishops
conclude this section by saying, "We hope Catholics and others will
seriously consider these policy applications as they make their own
decisions in public life" (56).
Gather with your family and friends to discuss how these
principles might be applied to the current situation. Listen
carefully to those seeking office to discern who truly desires to
serve all citizens of the land, including the poor and vulnerable.
Be an informed voter.
Molinari Quinby, MPS
Coordinator of Social
Justice Ministries Sacred Heart Cathedral--Raleigh, N.C.
Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for
persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted
in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.
From today’s second Letter of Paul to Timothy:
Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.
him be glory forever and ever. Amen"
Paul’s trust in God isn’t based on his own merits, but on the
Lord who, "will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me
safe to his heavenly kingdom." Like the tax collector in today’s
gospel, Paul is not the subject of the sentence, he is the object,
that is, the recipient of Christ’s graciousness.
So we ask ourselves:
- Do I subtly take credit for my good works, or do I see God
as their source?
- What are my gifts to offer in God’s service? Do I
acknowledge and thank God for them.
DEATH ROW INMATES
"The use of the death penalty cannot really be
mended. It should be ended."
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick
Inmates on death row are the most forgotten people in the prison
system. Each week I post in this space several inmates’ names and
addresses. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of them
to let them know we have not forgotten them. If you like, tell them
you heard about them through North Carolina’s, "People of Faith
Against the Death Penalty." If the inmate responds you might
consider becoming pen pals.
Please write to:
- John Henry Thompson #0406487 (On death row since 11/14/02)
- Terry Moore #0290634 (6/14/03)
- Jerrrey N. Duke #0113234 (9/26/03)
----Central Prison 4285 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC
For more information on the Catholic position on the death
penalty go to the webpage of the Catholic Mobilizing Network:
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St. Albert Priory
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