We might chuckle at five-year-old Noah’s boast that he will grow up to be stronger than Daddy. Or cringe at seventeen-year-old Hannah’s bluster that she can text and drive with no problem. Or wonder at co-workers who brag about how they are deserving of a huge raise because they produce more than anyone else. Only time will tell if Noah, Hannah, or the co-workers actually reach what they tout. In any case, at the time of the self-praise what tends to run through our minds is that these people don’t know themselves very well. Life is about growing in self-knowledge. Prayer is the ingredient that brings honesty and accuracy to our self-knowledge.
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector addressed God in prayer. The content of their prayer, however, differed greatly. The Pharisee’s prayer was all about himself and was turned toward self … his prayer was all about justifying himself. The tax collector’s prayer, by contrast, was turned toward God in true self-knowledge of who he was. Jesus declared the tax collector justified, not the Pharisee. Jesus tells us that we are “justified” when we know who we are before God and open ourselves in humility to receive God’s mercy. Justification – right relationship with God – comes only from knowing ourselves as God knows us. The message that Jesus teaches in this weekend’s Gospel is that justification comes not to those who consider themselves righteous, but to those who humbly acknowledge their need for God’s mercy.
Paradoxically, true humility is exaltation. Exaltation is the gift received while being one’s true self before God and others. In this there’s great hope in the Gospel for all of us, for all of us are sinners. The tax collector (generally hated for their practice of extortion) “stood off at a distance / and would not even raise his eyes to heaven,” a posture indicating his sinfulness and unworthiness before God. His prayer says something true about God (who is merciful) and himself (who is a sinner). The tax collector’s prayer allows God to be God and to show mercy. The tax collector’s prayer reveals both an understanding of God and the desire to be in right relation with God. The tax collector stands far off, but his prayer draws him near to God. This is exaltation – being near to God.
Justification is knowing who God is and what our relationship to God is. It is addressing God as God and letting God be God. It is acknowledging humbly who we are before God: sinners in need of mercy. The exaltation at the end of time is determined by whether we are justified, that is, humble and in right relationship to God. Good works alone don’t justify us – it is right relationship with God. This is our exaltation – humbling seeking and standing before our God.
In practice, probably most of us are totally like neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector. So both can teach us something. The Pharisee can teach us that religious practices are important, but not enough. They must always be performed with humility and with the goal of deepening our relationship with God. The tax collector can teach us that God doesn’t offer salvation to be perfect, but to those who acknowledge their sinfulness and cry out for God’s mercy. Like the tax collector, we must let God be God and receive the mercy offered. Though sinners, God exalts those who are in right relationship. Rather than focus unduly on our own sinfulness, we need to turn to God and ask for mercy.
May Saint Michael the Archangel defend, guide, protect, and intercede for us always!
~ Fr. Larry