30th Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 18,9-14
With the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus continued the teaching on prayer that he had begun with the parable of the needy widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). Of course, Jesus wanted his disciples to pray always, without ceasing, but he warned them that they should not think they were better than others just because they prayed more often. According to the Evangelist, Jesus told the parable because he saw some people who thought they were good enough to despise those who were not like them. He was aware that the pious often fall into the temptation to use their prayer as a reason to feel satisfied with themselves because of what they have achieved through prayer or what they expect to get just because they have prayed … even to the extent of despising their neighbour and not taking God seriously.
At that time: 9 Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I. READ: understand what the text is saying, focusing on how it says it
Although it might seem that the Gospel passage is about the way we pray, or rather two different ways of praying, this is not actually the intention of the narrator . Before he relates the parable, Luke tells us when – and why – Jesus told it. He met some people who thought they were good and looked down upon others, and he made up a story to teach a lesson. It is important not to overlook two things: first, the story is fictitious, not real, and second, the story is told to criticize people who have too high an opinion of themselves and have no time for others.
The fact that the story is “made up” does not detract from its value – quite the opposite! Jesus describes an imaginary situation of two men praying, but he tells the story with a very clear intention, which is to criticize the profoundly evil attitude of those who despise others (Lk 18,9). It is surprising, then, that Jesus use a parable about two ways of praying to censure the conduct of those who are full of self-esteem and despise their neighbour.
Has the way we talk to God anything to do with the way we behave towards others? For Jesus, it certainly does. Otherwise, he would not have invented this episode. Both characters go to the same place, the temple, to do the same thing, which is to pray. But they do it in a different way. The so-called good man, the Pharisee, is aware of his goodness and gives a good account of himself. He even thanks God for the fact that he is good. The tax collector, who is looked upon as a sinner, does nothing more than to acknowledge that he is a sinner. He does not even dare to turn his gaze to God. Neither of the two is wrong. Neither of them tries to deceive God. Each of them prays about his own life, telling God what God already knows. Why is it that only the one who admitted his sinfulness was justified? Not because he was more humble, but because he was more sincere! The tax collector saw himself as God saw him, lacking grace and in need of forgiveness. The Pharisee, on the other hand, saw himself the way he wanted so see himself, as one who observed the law, and he was satisfied with himself.
The parable ends in a way that gives it universal application (Luke 8:14). Jesus exhorts us to see ourselves, not as we want to see ourselves, but as God wants us to be. The people who will be exalted are those who acknowledge the reality of their situation, in the presence of God (in the temple, at prayer), accepting God’s judgment and refusing to judge others. People who know that they are judged by God do not allow themselves to be carried away in prayer by their own preconceived ideas. And without sincere prayer it is impossible to treat our neighbour well.
II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life
Jesus had insisted with his disciples on the importance of praying without ceasing. Now he urges them in their relationship with God not to become judgmental of others. If we pray and ask God to accept us as we are, we cannot then refuse to accept others as they are, even if they are not as good as we are. We cannot expect God to take care of our needs, if we fail to care for the needs of others. That is not worthy of a disciple of Jesus. If we pray without ceasing, as Jesus taught, that should not lead to complacency. The best prayer is not the prayer of one who prays longer and oftener, but the prayer of one who is in greater need. The parable denounces the complacency of those who think they are good enough in the eyes of God, and then despise others who they think are less good.
It might be good to ask ourselves why Jesus used a parable on prayer to teach us how we should relate to our neighbour. There is something wrong in our personal relationship with God, in the way we see ourselves before God, if we do not appreciate our neighbour, and specially if we judge and despise our neighbour, and think we are better than others. We cannot be good in the eyes of God, if we belittle our neighbour, even with good reason – after all, the tax collector was not a good person, and everyone knew it. A life of prayer that does not include respect and appreciation for our neighbour, especially the weaker or the less good, is not acceptable to God.
Without a good prayer life, without a sincere, honest, humble relationship with God, we will not respect or appreciate our neighbours as they deserve. And they do deserve to be respected, not because they are good, but because God loves them very much. If we pray well, without raising our eyes to heaven or getting puffed up with pride in our own goodness, we will behave well not only towards God, but also towards our neighbour. If we see ourselves as God sees us, then we will not despise others. Sincere prayer, even if it is the prayer of a sinner, teaches us to respect God and to treat others with respect. Many, if not all, of the difficulties we encounter in our relationships with others are born from a life of prayer that is not humble and sincere.
Neither of the two men in the parable was untruthful in his prayer. The Pharisee was able to point to his good works. The tax collector had nothing else to talk about except his sin. In both cases, their prayer reflected the life they led. What was missing then in the prayer of the Pharisee?
The good Pharisee did not ask for anything from God. All he wanted was to tell God how he was. He did not ask God for anything. All he wanted was God’s approval, so he thanked God that he was different and better. His superiority was real, and was reflected in his life, but it was offensive to his neighbour. He considered himself faithful enough to God and he was grateful, but somehow he thought that the way to thank God was to condemn his neighbour. But he went away condemned. Some people are self-righteous and think they are doing all that God requires of them. When they pray, they think only of themselves. They are pleased with how good they are in their own eyes and they are unable to see themselves as God sees them.
The good Pharisee did not lie to God. He presented himself as he saw himself. He gave no thought to what God wanted of him. He measured his relationship with God starting from himself. He wanted God to know what he was capable of doing. His goodness came from himself and so did his thanks. He used prayer – and God – to assert how good he was, and to show how pleased he was with himself. People who pray like that do not respect their neighbour, and they do not leave their prayer justified by God. They have no need of God. They are good enough as they are, and they are always better than others. They have so much respect for themselves that they have none left for their neighbour… nor for God! They think they are good but they are far from being just!
When we pray as disciples of Jesus, it should not make us feel better than those who do not pray. The Christian life that we try to live every day consists in fidelity to the will of God. We bring our daily problems to prayer, but we cannot expect God to hear our prayer if we use our prayer to compare ourselves with others who, we think, are not as good as we are.
Too often, unfortunately, we spend our prayer time trying to improve our image before God by making ourselves out to be better than our neighbour. Prayer is not an exercise in self-esteem. It is opportunity to know how much we are loved by God. We will discover our true worth if we see what we are worth in God’s eyes. Like the Pharisee in the parable, it seems that when we come into God’s presence, we feel the need to appear better than those around us. Maybe, like the Pharisee, we think that God accepts only good people, and we end up losing everything we have achieved by our effort and loyalty. No matter how sincere our life of prayer is, if it fosters feelings of superiority over others, we cannot expect God’s favour and blessing. Too often we come to God to tell him how good we are, and how good he should be to us, as a reward for our goodness. And to win God’s approval, we are not afraid to criticize those who are not as good as we are – just like the Pharisee. But Jesus tells us we should imitate the sinner, if we want to benefit from our prayer. What Jesus teaches is actually quite easy. After all, it must be easier to go to God to ask forgiveness than to convince him of our merits. In this parable, Jesus teaches us that in our prayer we should not tell God what we have done, but like the tax collector, we should talk to God about what still remains to be done. We should not tell God how bad other people are, and we should stop saying how good we are. Every time we come before the Lord, we know that we are indebted to him, and we know how much we need God’s grace. We know that he will not fail us. It should be very easy for us, as sinners, to give up comparing ourselves with others. In order to feel acceptable to God, it is not necessary to feel better than others. It is enough to know that we are not as good as God wants us to be.
The Pharisee’s mistake was not that he did not pray, and he did not lie when he prayed. His mistake was that he thought he was good because he was better than others. He did not see himself as God saw him. He thought he was good because he compared himself with others who were less good – not because he saw himself in the light of God’s goodness. This is why, for all his goodness, he despised those who were not as good as he was. And this is why he did not go home justified. The sinner, on the other hand, went home at peace with God. He did not have to do anything other than recognize that his life was not up to what God was asking of him, and he had nothing to say to God except that he was not worthy of Him and that he was really sorry.
To reduce the teaching of Jesus to a mere exhortation to be humble would be to undermine his purpose. He very deliberately contrasted two ways of praying, and two ways of relating to God. Jesus criticized only those who feel good when they pray, and do not think about how God sees them. When we use our prayer to make peace with ourselves, we lose God and his grace. No matter how good we are, we will never succeed in being justified.
Jesus has made it easy for us to pray. To win God’s favour, we do not have to submit a list of all the good things we have done. Instead, we need to pray from our helplessness and our mistakes. We do not have to be better than others for our prayer to be heard, and for God to make us good. It is not difficult to pray. It is enough not to look down on those who are not like us. We do not need to feel confident about our merits, to ensure God’s blessing and his favours.