To thank God for everything in life is a good prayer.
To exalt yourself is to seek humiliation. On the other hand, the prayer of the Publican is the other extreme. He is the image of a backslider, a non-practicing member of the religion. He lays his life open to the gift of Divine Mercy.
Jesus teaches again on Prayer. It tells the story of two extremes. This story is a contrast between a religious person and a non-practicing believer. You and I are somewhere in between and we must not miss the point.
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It was a sort of virtue without imperfection, which took pleasure in contemplating itself, which needed nothing, and which was, from its own internal excellence, sure of a reward. Their descriptions, their stories of good and religious men, are often beautiful, and admit of an instructive interpretation; but in themselves they have this great blot, that they make no mention of sin, and that they speak as if shame and humiliation were no properties of the virtuous. I will remind you, my Brethren, of a very beautiful story, which you have read in a writer of antiquity; and the more beautiful it is, the more it is fitted for my present purpose, for the defect in it will come out the more strongly by the very contrast, viz.
A celebrated Greek sage once paid a visit to a prosperous king of Lydia, who, after showing him all his greatness and his glory, asked him whom he considered to have the happiest lot, of all men whom he had known. On this, the philosopher, passing by the monarch himself, named a countryman of his own, as fulfilling his typical idea of human perfection.
The most blessed of men, he said, was Tellus of Athens, for he lived in a flourishing city, and was prospered in his children, and in their families; and then at length when war ensued with a border state, he took his place in the battle, repelled the enemy, and died gloriously, being buried at the public expense where he fell, and receiving public honours.
Now perhaps you will ask me, my Brethren, whether this heathen idea of religion be not really higher than that which I have called pre-eminently Christian; for surely to obey in simple tranquillity and unsolicitous confidence, is the noblest conceivable state of the creature, and the most acceptable worship he can pay to the Creator. Doubtless it is the noblest and most acceptable worship; such has ever been the worship of the angels; such is the worship now of the spirits of the just made perfect; such will be the worship of the whole company of the glorified after the general resurrection.
But we are engaged in considering the actual state of man, as found in this world; and I say, considering what he is, any standard of duty, which does not convict him of real and multiplied sins, and of incapacity to please God of his own strength, is untrue; and any rule of life, which leaves him contented with himself, without fear, without anxiety, without humiliation, is deceptive; it is the blind leading the blind: yet such, in one shape or other, is the religion of the whole earth, beyond the pale of the Church.
Thus he apprehends part, and part only, of the moral law; has scarcely any idea at all of sanctity; and, instead of tracing actions to their source, which is the motive, and judging them thereby, he measures them for the most part by their effects and their outward aspect. Such is the way with the multitude of men everywhere and at all times; they do not see the Image of Almighty God before them, and ask themselves what He wishes: if once they did this, they would begin to see how much He requires, and they would earnestly come to Him, both to be pardoned for what they do wrong, and for the power to do better.
And, for the same reason that they do not please Him, they succeed in pleasing themselves. Hence, they become both self-satisfied and self-sufficient;—they think they know just what they ought to do, and that they do it all; and in consequence they are very well content with themselves, and rate their merit very high, and have no fear at all of any future scrutiny into their conduct, which may befall them, though their religion mainly lies in certain outward observances, and not a great number even of them.
He looked upon himself with great complacency, for the very reason that the standard was so low, and the range so narrow, which he assigned to his duties towards God and man. He professed, indeed, to pay thanks to God, but he hardly apprehended the existence of any direct duties on his part towards his Maker.
He thought he did all that God required, if he satisfied public opinion. His alms and fastings were not done in penance, but because the world asked for them; penance would have implied the consciousness of sin; whereas it was only Publicans, and such as they, who had anything to be forgiven. And these indeed were the outcasts of society, and despicable; but no account lay against men of well-regulated minds such as his: men who were well-behaved, decorous, consistent, and respectable.
30th Sunday Reflection (Year C) THE PHARISEE & THE TAX COLLECTOR. HUMILITY AND PRAYER.
He thanked God he was a Pharisee, and not a penitent. They framed a code of morals which they could without trouble obey; and then they were content with it and with themselves.
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Virtue, according to Xenophon, one of the best principled and most religious of their writers, and one who had seen a great deal of the world, and had the opportunity of bringing together in one the highest thoughts of many schools and countries,—virtue, according to him, consists mainly in command of the appetites and passions, and in serving others in order that they may serve us. He says, in the well known Fable, called the choice of Hercules, that Vice has no real enjoyment even of those pleasures which it aims at; that it eats before it is hungry, and drinks before it is thirsty, and slumbers before it is wearied.
It never hears, he says, that sweetest of voices, its own praise; it never sees that greatest luxury among sights, its own good deeds. It enfeebles the bodily frame of the young, and the intellect of the old. Now this age is as removed in distance, as in character, from that of the Greek philosopher; yet who will say that the religion which it acts upon is very different from the religion of the heathen? Of course I understand well, that it might know, and that it will say, a great many things foreign and contrary to heathenism. I am well aware that the theology of this age is very different from what it was two thousand years ago.
I know men profess a great deal, and boast that they are Christians, and speak of Christianity as being a religion of the heart; but, when we put aside words and professions, and try to discover what their religion is, we shall find, I fear, that the great mass of men in fact get rid of all religion that is inward; that they lay no stress on acts of faith, hope, and charity, on simplicity of intention, purity of motive, or mortification of the thoughts; that they confine themselves to two or three virtues, superficially practised; that they know not the words contrition, penance, and pardon; and that they think and argue that, after all, if a man does his duty in the world, according to his vocation, he cannot fail to go to heaven, however little he may do besides, nay, however much, in other matters, he may do that is undeniably unlawful.
Such as I love, I rebuke and chastise; be zealous, therefore, and do penance. Yes, my Brethren, it is the ignorance of our understanding, it is our spiritual blindness, it is our banishment from the presence of Him who is the source and the standard of all Truth, which is the cause of this meagre, heartless religion of which men are commonly so proud. Had we any proper insight into things as they are, had we any real apprehension of God as He is, of ourselves as we are, we should never dare to serve Him without fear, or to rejoice unto Him without trembling.
And it is the removal of this veil which is spread between our eyes and heaven, it is the pouring in upon the soul of the illuminating grace of the New Covenant, which makes the religion of the Christian so different from that of the various human rites and philosophies, which are spread over the earth. The Catholic saints alone confess sin, because the Catholic saints alone see God. It is the sight of God, revealed to the eye of faith, that makes us hideous to ourselves, from the contrast which we find ourselves to present to that great God at whom we look.
It is the vision of Him in His infinite gloriousness, the All-holy, the All-beautiful, the All-perfect, which makes us sink into the earth with self-contempt and self-abhorrence. We are contented with ourselves till we contemplate Him. Why is it, I say, that the moral code of the world is so precise and well-defined? Why is the worship of reason so calm? Why was the religion of classic heathenism so joyous? Why is the framework of civilized society all so graceful and so correct?
Why, on the other hand, is there so much of emotion, so much of conflicting and alternating feeling, so much that is high, so much that is abased, in the devotion of Christianity? His prayer is nothing else than praising himself and the things he does: he fasts and pays tithes on all he gets. It is an exaltation of his good qualities and the contempt of others, whom he despises, especially the tax collector who is together with him in the same place.
He does not consider him as his brother. The one who returns justified in a good relationship with God is not the Pharisee, but rather the tax collector. Once again, Jesus turns everything the other way round. Perhaps this application made by Jesus of the parable did not please many persons. Jesus prayed very much and insisted so that the people and his disciples also pray. Because it is in our relation with God that truth emerges and that the person finds herself in all reality and humility.
They reveal that even for Him it was not always easy. Like the widow you must insist very much, as it is also seen in the prayer made in the Garden of Olives Lk 22, He insisted up until death, He did not lose heart and he was heard Hb 5, 7.
The two parables also reveal his experience and intimacy with God as Father who accepts all and whose love has gratuity as a central mark. He has loved us first. He accepts the tax collector. He presents Jesus in constant prayer. For Jesus, prayer was intimately united to life, to concrete facts, to the decisions which he had to take. He listened to him. In the difficult and decisive moments of his life, Jesus prayed the Psalms. Just like any pious Jew, he knew them by heart.
But the recitation of the Psalms does not take away his creativity. Rather, Jesus composed himself a Psalm which he has transmitted to us. Praise Yahweh, my soul!
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Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word.