Readings: Sirach 35:15-22; Psalm 32, Response: The Lord hears the cry of the poor; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
I often tell people that it’s when we feel most unworthy and are struggling with our sins that we need to turn to God more.
I think many of us grew up in a culture that unconsciously developed in us the assumption that when we are stained by sin, we are unworthy, and must stay away from God until we are cleansed.
This gives us a false sense of who God is in our personal relationship with him. Yes, God is perfect in holiness and love, but he does not make this a prerequisite for us to enter a deep and personal relationship with him.
On the contrary, this is a grace he offers to us: the grace of his love and holiness as the horizon of our life, and the “enabling” graces to help us in our journey to grow closer to him, faltering and imperfect as we may be. It is an assurance from God that he will love with a perfect love, not a demand to be perfect as a precondition.
This is the context of the two prayers in this Sunday’s Gospel. We pray to a God who is perfect love.
The prayer of the Pharisee was no prayer at all. He was not entering a relationship with God, but was promoting himself.
Oh, how often have we encountered such persons! No matter what the topic is, the moment the person enters the conversation, it naturally leads to (and ends with) him/her talking about himself/herself.
For such a person, there is no room for others, much less a genuine relationship with God. He/she “instrumentalizes” others, including God, and all acts or works of charity and piety into “promotional materials.”
The tax collector is the other extreme of prayer, one of self-effacing humility. Commentaries say that his reference to himself is not “a sinner,” but rather “the sinner.” This sense of unworthiness makes him turn to God’s mercy.
Humility is first step
Any given day, we will take this prayer of “the sinner” over the Pharisee. However, there is more work to be done. This humility is the first step, the opening of the door.
St. Ignatius of Loyola makes a distinction between two levels of freedom. This is set within the horizon of the goal of his Spiritual Exercise, i.e., spiritual freedom that makes one dedicate his/her life totally to God’s will and mission, and desire nothing else but God’s grace and love.
He begins with a level of freedom from the self, from one’s sinfulness, brokenness and woundedness, and even from one’s giftedness, talents and blessings. This is the freedom that leads to a realistic knowledge of the self, of self-awareness and self-acceptance that become the starting point to attain the second level of freedom—the freedom to commit to mission.
On one hand, the freedom from giftedness helps us avoid the self-righteous and narcissistic stance of the Pharisee. It is not false modesty, but a freedom that comes from accepting our giftedness, leading to gratitude, culminating in an offering back to God.
On the other hand, freedom from one’s sinfulness or unworthiness helps us avoid the danger of false modesty or unhealthy insecurity. Likewise, this does not lead us to a grateful offering back to God of all that we are.
We do not know if the tax collector had moved from accepting his sins and failures to offering this back to God in gratitude for his mercy and forgiveness, and leading to responding to his call to join his Son’s mission.
Pope Francis’ own experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness is shared with us through his motto as Bishop, and then as Pope, “miserando atque eligendo,” roughly translated, “because [Jesus] saw [the tax collector] through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: ‘Follow me.’”
This is the freedom that leads to the deepest freedom of accepting God’s forgiveness, mercy and love that come to us through Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. It is the freedom that leads to a grateful and total offering of self to God’s will and mission for us.
Last Sunday, we reflected on perseverance in prayer, the prayer that transforms us from asking for our needs to trusting, evolving to a deeper faith and hope that makes prayer one of discernment of God’s presence and movements, as well as our interior movements. This culminates in faith and hope becoming love.
“Prayer does not change God. It changes us” (C. S. Lewis in “Shadowlands”). It is the prayer of “the sinner” that shows this change and allows the deeper change to happen. It is the change from being a sinner to becoming a missionary to proclaim God’s love and mercy.
It changes us from being a sinner to being on the road to becoming a saint—on a journey towards perfect love and holiness. —CONTRIBUTED