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"O God, Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner"
March 26, 2022 Readings Reflection: Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple. In the Pharisee’s prayer, he tells God how righteous he is, fasting twice a week and tithing his income. He does not heed Jesus’ words that God sees in secret (see Mat 6:6); instead, he feels he must inform God of his good works, as though God is otherwise unaware of them. The Pharisee believes that his good works set him apart from “the rest of humanity,” who are “greedy, dishonest, and adulterous.”
Meanwhile, the tax collector in the Temple prays in a very different manner. He keeps his eyes down, not feeling worthy to gaze up toward Heaven. Beating his breast, he asks God to “be merciful to me a sinner.”
The tax collector recognizes his sinfulness and shows true contrition in his prayer. The Pharisee, however, is too blinded by his pride to recognize his own sinfulness; he believes that his good works alone justify him.
We know from the Epistle of St. James that “faith without works is dead” (Js 2:20 DRB); likewise, works without faith are also fruitless. All the good works in the world would not benefit one’s soul if one lacks charity. The Pharisee could fulfill the letter of the law perfectly, but without charity and humility, it would do nothing to benefit his soul.
As God tells us in the first reading, “[I]t is love that I desire, not sacrifice.” Before we are able to spiritually benefit from our penances, we must first have charity and humility. We must recognize why we are doing these things: not to glorify ourselves or to make us better than the rest of mankind, but because we are sinful. Penance mortifies us and strengthens us against temptation; through our sufferings, offered to Christ in a spirit of repentance, we are able to make some satisfaction for our sins.
This Lent, before fasting, abstaining, or performing whatever acts of penance and devotion we may be doing, let us take a moment to reflect on our own sinfulness and unworthiness, and like the penitent tax collector, pray, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”