One possible way to summarize the parable we hear today would be to say: “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one did, the other didn’t.”
Have you ever thought of prayer as a matter of confrontation? St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of this parable in just that light.
The parable appears only in St. Luke’s Gospel and is part of his theme of the “reversal” of fortune. Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, St. Luke continues to emphasize that the great of this world will be the least in the next, and vice versa.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of this parable by asking us to consider what happens when we confront our neighbor, ourselves and our God in prayer. He was of the opinion that when we confront the reality of our neighbor, we should arrive in the land of charity. When we confront ourselves in prayer, we should arrive in the land of humility. When we confront the reality of God in prayer, we should arrive in the land of mercy. Of course the Pharisee makes none of these journeys. His prayer does not characterize him as a man of charity, humility or mercy. The tax collector, on the other hand, by admitting who he is in relationship with God and his neighbor reaches all three destinations.
There is nothing in the Pharisees words that are even remotely akin to prayer. He stands before God justifying himself rather than allowing God’s mercy to enter his life. He sings his own praises and tells God how good he has been when holding his actions up to the scrutiny of the expectations of the Law. His prayer is full of the first person – himself. He even takes time to denigrate the man who praying next to him. Charity, humility and his own need for mercy is completely lacking from his so-called prayer.
The tax collector focuses all of his attention on God by simply acknowledging that he needs God, needs God’s mercy, because he is, like all of us, a sinner. He is a paragon of humility, and can fully expect that God will be merciful.
Jesus concludes this parable by assuring us that the tax collector is justified; in other words, he stands in right relationship with God. For those who are listening, Jesus also reminds them of the fact that God’s way of looking at things is not our way.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator