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The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Praying with Humility
March 18th Readings Reflection: Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
Today’s Gospel contains the well-known parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in the Temple. The Pharisee prayed, “O God, I thank [Y]ou that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” The tax collector prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The first difference of note between these two prayers is that the Pharisee’s was not truly a prayer. The Baltimore Catechism succinctly defines prayer as “the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God” (Baltimore Catechism III, question 475). The Pharisee lifted neither his mind nor his heart to God, instead focusing entirely upon himself. He bragged to God, as though God were somehow unaware of what the Pharisee had done. It was disguised as a prayer of thanksgiving—“I thank [Y]ou”—but the Pharisee’s heart was far from genuine in this act of gratitude.
The Baltimore Catechism further instructs that we should pray “[w]ith a conviction of our own helplessness and our dependence upon God” (q. 477). The Pharisee in today’s parable did the opposite of this, instead bragging to God about how upright he was. Jesus tells us that our Heavenly Father rewards us for the good deeds that we perform secretly (cf. Mat 6:6). The Pharisee was proud of his good works and boasted about them, not only to God, but also to his fellow men. He lacked the humility necessary to earn graces from his good works.
If the Pharisee is an example of how we should not pray, the tax collector shows us the way in which we should approach God in prayer: “[T]he tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast.” Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector recognized that he was a sinner and therefore unworthy to approach the Throne of God. Rather than despairing over his sinfulness, the tax collector humbly implored God’s mercy “with loving trust in His goodness” (BC, q. 477).
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that the tax collector “went home justified, not the [Pharisee].” In his pride, the Pharisee saw no fault in himself for which he should beg God’s mercy. God is always ready to forgive us, but we must have a sincere sorrow for our sins and a firm resolve to sin no more. Since the Pharisee lacked this contrition, God did not forgive his sins. At this halfway point in the season of Lent, may we pray for the grace not only to recognize our sins but also to have a sincere sorrow for offending God, Who loves us to the point of dying on the Cross so that we may inherit eternal life.