But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
Striking the breast while confessing one’s guilt has long and tenacious roots in our Catholic culture, indeed, in Jewish culture as well. For millennia and across peoples, it has been a universal symbol of sorrow, angst, grief, mourning or regret. So when Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector who went ot the Temple to pray, it is even more striking as to who performs this bodily action.
Tax collectors were considered notorious sinners of Jesus’ time, but it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who admits his faults and shows remorse while begging God’s forgiveness. It is he who strikes his breast; he who expresses – through words and gestures – his deep sorrow and regret. It is this honest and open prayer that Jesus affirms. In contrast, the Pharisee uses prayer to tell God – and all others who might hear – how especially righteous he finds himself to be. He has no sorrow or regret, but rather exalts himself and fails to love the tax collector.
Hosea calls us to return to the Lord, much the same as he calls to his wife who has abandoned him for another. He knows the pain that God experiences in losing a beloved child. The tax collector models the behavior by admitting is guilt and simply asking for God’s gracious mercy.
Whenever we pray the Confiteor as part of the opening rites of the Eucharist, let us do so as the tax collector does, knowing that god desires honest expression of our longing for mercy and love. The way, we may know God’s merciful healing and be prepared to enter into the sacred mysteries of the Eucharist when we are once again allowed to gather to celebrate that love and mercy.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator