Who’s Who: A Homily by Deacon Alan Doty

Photo by Rey Spadoni

Every story, it seems, has a good character and a bad character, a good person and a bad person. It is the constant tension between good and bad that makes the story interesting and relatable to our lives. 

Jesus however turns that trope on its head, as he is wont to do. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector we are not really sure who is who-good or bad. Each one displays tragic flaws and unexpected virtue. 

The tax collector seems a good candidate for the role of bad guy. Certainly, no Israelite living in occupied Jerusalem would look at the tax collector with admiration. With every transaction the tax collector makes the overlords stronger while weakening his own nation. In the Jewish nation, religion and identity as a people were totally wrapped up in one piece, so the tax collector was scorned on all sides. 

The Pharisee was the opposite, or so it seems to us. His very existence and way of life represented the culture and identity of the conquered people. The Pharisee gives life to the Law of Moses by living a life that honors the Law in every detail. 

And yet, here they both are in the Temple. How did they come to be there? It doesn’t appear to be the Sabbath else these two would hardly be alone, so they apparently stopped into Temple not out of duty but out of love for God. It’s like when one of us stops into the Adoration Chapel in the middle of the week, just to be present with God. 

So how did these two, very different, worshipers come to be at the same place at the same time? 

Their different prayers reveal what’s on their mind at that moment. 

The Pharisee clearly has put a lot of work and thought into being a perfect example of a follower of the Law, and that is what he boasts about to God. He fasts twice as often as in required, tithes without looking for loopholes, gives to the poor. The Pharisee was someone you would want on a fundraising campaign, for instance, or to run your church fair. He is probably very busy doing good. It is rather exhausting, actually. 

The Pharisee strives to be perfect and feels he is pretty close.  But, you see, it’s all human based. His good works are not for God but for himself. The Pharisee even speaks his prayer to himself. You get the impression that all his charity work and fasting is to please, well, to please himself, to live up to the ideal of the perfect Jew he holds in his head, but not in his heart. 

And it’s hard work. Anytime we as humans try to become perfect on our own, or for ourselves, we are literally doomed to fail. It is only God who is perfect, and only love of God that makes our lives inclined for perfection. 

Let’s look at the tax collector now. He has no illusions of perfection, not a chance in a million of being mistaken for a faithful follower of Moses. Yet he also is called to be in the Temple this day. He as well as the Pharisee yearns for perfection, but as different from the Pharisee he acknowledges his imperfection.

The tax collector’s prayer is not human centered. He makes no claim to deserve God’s love. Instead, he bows his head and worships God, drawing near to God in his heart. It’s not hard work. It’s the opposite of striving.  And, as Jesus points out, it is the way to justification. 

Our responsorial today is from Psalm 34, one of the most beautiful pf the psalms, one of my favorites. ‘The Lord hears the cry of the poor’. God is close to the broken-hearted. God loves all of us, the proud as well as the broken. Being poor has nothing to do with money. The Lord hears the cry of those who acknowledge themselves as poor, acknowledge that all we have comes from God, even our lives. Prayer should be full of humility, should be attentive and trusting. The Book of Sirach says that the prayer of the humble pierces the cloud (Sirach 35: 17).  

It is interesting sometimes to speculate about what happened to the characters in Jesus’ parables. Were their prayers answered? How did they live out their lives after that encounter in the Temple?

I’d like to think that the Pharisee’s prayer was in fact answered, even though he didn’t actually pray for anything. God hears our prayers and knows what we cannot express. Perhaps the Pharisee got tired of striving to be perfect. I’d like to think that one day when he was studying the Psalms, he came to Psalm 34, just as we did today. He wondered how he could feel the closeness to God the Psalmist promised. Wouldn’t you? He meditated on the line that says “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted”(Ps 34:18) and felt himself being humbled, laying his pride at the Lord’s feet. His prayer, the prayer he never actually uttered, was answered. 

I’d like to think that the tax collector also studied Psalm 34 on the very same day as the Pharisee, when he came to the last line in the Psalm: “The Lord redeems the lives of his servants; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.” (Ps 34:22). The tax collector felt himself laying his guilt at the feet of the Lord and so his prayer, the prayer he spoke and the deeper prayer in his heart, was answered.

The lesson is, I think, is to pray. Pray when you feel on top of the world and pray when you hit bottom. Pray the prayer of the tax collector: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner’. Pray the Psalms. Whenever you pray, however you pray, and no matter how you approach God, be sure that God is there waiting to answer the prayers of your heart. 

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