Grace to you!
The Lord Jesus told the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) to show the true spirit of prayer.
The story speaks to recurrent situations in our everyday spiritual life. Don't we, from time to time, meet very self-centered people? They are the kind of people this parable addresses. Let us not hastily jump to the conclusion that "I am not one of those" without thinking through this Bible message.
Who are the self-centered, and why do their prayer not find favor with God?
Firstly, they are those who are self-serving. The Pharisee's prayer was more or less a praise of himself of what he did. In two sentences, he used more personal pronouns—5 in the RSV English Bible—than one could expect in a page. It is like he was telling God what good things he has done and did not leave God to help him become a better person. One could say he thought of God as one who serves his needs. God has to bless him anyway because he is doing good for himself. Sometimes, we tend to assume God is to serve our needs. We call this functional prayer-life. It is comparable to magic.
Secondly, the self-centered are people who believe they are self-sufficient and don’t need help. Scripture, speaking about the Pharisee, says he “prayed to himself” (vs. 11). His prayer was to himself and not to God.
Thirdly, they are those who are self-righteous. People of that kind suppose they are good enough for God to accept them. Self-righteousness can also manifest subtly through scrupulosity. It makes us assume that our "perfect" practices of good works and prayer-routine matters more than our deep need for God and divine mercy.
Finally are those who despise others, the "I am better than another" mindset. It is a feeling of spiritual and moral superiority over others. Any time we feel a sense of superiority because of our claimed knowledge of the faith or our practice of virtues, we may have, unwittingly, become like the Pharisee in this story.
When we are making progress in the spiritual life, we should see ourselves as beneficiaries of divine mercy and grace. Though we cooperated with God in making it happen, that doesn't make us superior persons over others. We are all humans, sinners in need of God's grace. Except for God's grace, our life will have been much different than we thought.
God does not answer the prideful, self-serving, self-righteous, and despiteful prayer. Such was the prayer of the character of the Pharisee whom the Lord used in the story.
The Lord spoke of the prayer of the Tax Collector, a public sinner, with justifying tenderness because he prayed to God with genuine humility and a contrite heart.
The right disposition to prayer is a humble, contrite spirit. Mercy embraces a contrite heart.
As we journey through Lent, let us pray in the words of prophet Hosea: “Come let us return to the Lord" (Hos 6:1). Remember, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirit is crushed" (Ps 34:18).
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Saturday, Lent, Week 3: Hosea 6:1-6; Luke 18:9-14]
Father Maurice Emelu, Ph.D., provides a daily blog of reflections based on the Bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth and inspiration. They are designed for a general audience. They may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons.