First there is a Pharisee, he has come to the temple to present his credentials to God; he does not pray to God, he stands tall and prays, literally- “toward himself.” This very good man, who clearly goes beyond the basic regulations of the Law in his religious regimen, has come to the Temple to remind God about all he has accomplished. Most embarrassing of all, the Pharisee compares himself with a tax-collector, who is clearly no match for his kind of holiness. He is sure he is better off than others, for he has fasted and tithed himself into a dither. And in the process he has blocked off the possibility of receiving God’s mercy; he doesn’t need it, he’ll redeem himself. This is, we suspect, what makes Jesus so frustrated.
The tax collector on the other hand is disarmingly honest, vulnerable. He prays, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” And his humility disarms us; and it probably disarms God. This man comes to beg for mercy without a hint of illusion about who he is. Unlike the Pharisee, he knows he’s got nothing to recommend him to God. Tax collectors were among the most despised of Jews in Jesus’ day; for they extorted money from their own people.
But this morning we witness this man’s conversion; he comes to beg forgiveness. And although Jesus does not tell us, perhaps we can imagine the scene just before this one, which precipitated the tax collector’s change of heart. It was the end of a typical day and the last person in line to make her payment was another old widow. Distracted, his head buried in his ledger, he shouts out an amount which of course includes his very generous cut, and he puts out his hand. And as she departs, stooped and frail, he looks up and recognizes her. It’s his best friend’s grandmother; she often looked after them when they were little, now here she is coughing and leaning on her cane. His heart is pierced; he thinks to himself, “What am I doing?” He’s up like a shot, pushes himself away from his table and rushes to her, pressing a fistful of coins into her parched hand. She stands still, astonished. And head lowered, he hurries off to the Temple.
Jesus tells us this tax collector will go home justified, acquitted of his sins, because he has had a change of heart and has come to beg for mercy. It’s just as Sirach declares in today’s First Reading: the prayer of the lowly one always “pierces the clouds.”
Photograph by Brother Brian. Excerpts from this morning's homily.