My dear Brothers and sisters,
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple is very rich with spiritual truth. In fact, it contains the very essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The first thing to notice from this specific parable is that both the Pharisee and the tax collector are said to have gone up to the temple in order pray, however, there is a great difference in their prayers. This difference also shows us a great difference in their hearts as well. The Pharisee in the story is the picture of one who is self-justifying. Notice that his prayer has no elements of confession. He does not ask forgiveness for his sins, perhaps because he believes he has nothing to confess. Nor is there any word of praise or thanksgiving to God. His prayer is all about him. The Pharisee also makes the mistake of comparing himself to others in order that he might look good and make others look bad. He thought: "Look at that guy; he is a sinner and a tax collector. At least I'm better than him." Truly, the story goes much deeper than the comparisons we make between others and ourselves. The parable deals with our perception of who we are in the eyes of God.
Unlike the Pharisee, who stands boldly in the temple reciting his prayers of self-congratulation, the tax collector stood “at a distance,” unable to even lift his eyes to heaven, the burden of his guilt and shame weighed heavily upon him, and the load he carried had become unbearable. Overcome by his transgressions, he beats his breast in sorrow and repentance and appeals to God for mercy. The prayer he speaks is the very one God is waiting to hear, and his attitude is exactly what God wants from all who come to Him. It can be said that, the tax collector exhibits precisely what Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Being poor in spirit means admitting we have nothing to offer to God to atone for our sin. We come to God as empty beggars.
Truly, only one is a humble enough to recognize his need for the healing hand of God. He is the one who truly prays because he realizes how much he really needs God. He is the one who leaves the Temple with God’s arms around him. The Pharisee leaves having nothing but his own self-satisfaction. The tax collector leaves with a great treasure: the love of God in his heart.
The tax collector knew that he was a sinner, but he also knew that God was a God who showed mercy. God is holy. God is truthful. God is also merciful; so he cried out to God for mercy. This is faith. If we are truly broken-hearted over our sin, we can be assured of God’s boundless love and forgiveness in Christ. He has promised in His word to accept us, love us, and make us alive again through His Son. We all need the mercy of God. As we come to a deeper understanding of all that God has done for us, we also come to a deeper understanding of how much we need His mercy and forgiveness. The greatest saints are people who saw themselves a great sinners because they had a profound realization of the extent of God's love for them and the many times they had not returned His love.
My dear Brothers and sisters,
Now, before merciful God, let us pray: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us, sinners." Amen. We stand up to profess our faith.
Fr. Joseph Pham Quoc Van, O.P.