This is Why It’s All By His Grace

Cycle C |  Ordinary Time |  Week 30

– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London


The story is told of how Frederick the Great, King of France, once visited a prison and talked with the inmates. Each claimed innocence of all accusations. The king spotted one prisoner who was not talking and asked him, “I suppose you are innocent too?” “No, sir” replied the man. “I’m guilty and deserve my punishment.” Turning to the prison warden the king said, “Here, release this rascal before he corrupts all these other innocent and holy inmates!”

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector at prayer in the Temple. Eventually, it was the sinful Tax Collector, not the self-righteous Pharisee, who went home justified i.e. forgiven and reconciled with God. The Pharisees were a prominent Jewish sect known for their strict observance of the Law. In fact, they went beyond the requirements of the law e.g. they fasted twice a week instead of once a year as required by law and they gave tithes of all their income, not just of the stipulated incomes. Thus, the Pharisee wasn’t kidding when he compared himself to the rest of the people and found them grossly wanting.

We may miss how radical the parable came across at the time since the word “Pharisee” has become synonymous with hypocrisy. And we can easily assume that the Pharisee is going to be the villain of any moral story. For listeners at the time of Jesus however, the initial reaction would have been precisely the opposite. They would assume that the Pharisee would be the hero of any moral story because they were admired and highly regarded as models of piety.

On the other hand, a reaction of disgust would greet any mention of a “Tax Collector”. Well, state revenue collectors have never been popular in any society. But the Jews’ resentment of tax-collectors was heightened by the fact that at the time, Israel had fallen to Rome. Tax collectors were therefore regarded as unclean saboteurs who worked for and mixed up with the pagan enemy.  Moreover, as long as the Romans got their cut, they didn’t really care how much extra the corrupt tax collector extorted for himself.  They could therefore never be the heroes of any moral story.

So, why should God reject the “good” person who keeps His laws and make peace with the sinner? We know how we take offence when someone wrongs us. First, unlike us, God does not see sin as an “offence” against Himself. It is the sinner who is hurt. God sees the sinner as a person who has made a bad mistake and needs to be rehabilitated. It is therefore precisely as a sinner that a person needs God the most. And God comes to the help of a sinner who in humility and truth recognises his sin, and trusts, not in himself or in anything he had done but only in God’s mercy.

But that wasn’t the attitude of the Pharisee who confidently approached the presence of God with arrogant sense of entitlement: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” His prayer is turned in on himself. Yes, the Gospel notes that “He speaks his prayer to himself” i.e. while pretending that he is directing his prayers to God, the whole purpose is to make him feel good about himself.

How easy it is to turn even the most sacred moments to our own advantage. He asked for nothing, because he didn’t think he had need of anything, certainly not of forgiveness. He was upright and was flaunting his righteousness for God. Yet, none of us measures up to God’s standards. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). That’s why it’s all by His grace; our self-righteousness will never be enough.

Thus, the prayer of the Pharisee is a perfect example of how it is possible to be completely right, and at the same time, completely wrong. He assumes that he knew God too well but does he? Is what God looking for a recitation of all that we have done for Him? Listen to the Psalmist: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifices…., you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifice that pleases you is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:15-17).

Jesus addressed this parable to “(a) some who were confident of their own righteousness and (b) looked down on everybody else.” Yes, the two attitudes go together. Self-righteous people are seldom content with their supposed “goodness”. They need to be better than others hence their critical and judgemental spirit. Thus, the second reason why the Pharisee’s prayer failed was his lack of charity as demonstrated in his contempt for the Tax Collector.

St. Paul cautions that nothing has value without love (1Corinthians 13:1-3). Indeed, sin can too easily be seen as a personal failure to meet certain behavioural standards. That’s why we easily confess “I was impatient”, “I was jealous”, “I got angry”, “I was not at Sunday Mass”.  But, over and above personal failure to meet standards, sin is more fundamentally a failure in relationships – with God, with other people, with oneself.

The Tax Collector simply prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He knew he had nothing to boast of. He is not entitled. All he had to offer was his guilt, his emptiness, his need, his failure, his sin. But that was enough because he trusted in God’s mercy. He does not compare himself with other men. He only measures himself against God’s standards and finds himself wanting. Knowing how unworthy he was, he stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven.  Hopefully, those who stand at a distance in our churches also do so based on sense of unworthiness and not because they want to be close to the exit.

Ultimately, the disturbing lesson here is that our belief in God does not really save anybody. Even demons believe in God (James 2:19). What rather matters is what your belief in God has made you to become. Yet, even more tricky is the fact that the moment you say, ‘Thank God, I’m not like this Pharisee’ … whoops!.. you’ve become just like him!

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