Life & Soul

Jesus teaches us how to turn to our Judge

A fresco of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Ottobeuren Basilica, Bavaria

The 30th Sunday of the Year
Eccl 35:12-14 & 16-19; 2 Tim 4:6-8 & 16-18; Lk 18:9-14 (Year C)

“The Lord is close to the broken-hearted; those whose spirit is crushed he will save. The Lord ransoms the souls of his servants. Those who hide in him shall not be condemned.”

The prayer of the psalmist cuts through the superficial assurances that so often cloak the deeper vulnerability at the heart of every sinner. We long for God, and yet He to whom we turn for salvation is also the one who weighs our lives in judgment. How are we to approach such a judge, described in Ecclesiasticus as “no respecter of personages”?

To know ourselves is to acknowledge that we can only turn to such a God with the most profound and trusting humility. For most humility is not so much the insight of a moment as the work of a lifetime.

Such humility, whose beauty is so difficult to describe, was perfectly illustrated in the reaction of Jesus to “those who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else”. Jesus contrasted the attitudes of the Pharisee and the tax collector as they presented themselves in prayer at the Temple.

The Pharisee, whether consciously or unconsciously, approached God already bristling with judgment, both about himself and others. He was not ashamed to list his many achievements as some kind of claim upon God. “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here.”

Pride is all too ready to list its achievements and, in its self-obsession, demands acknowledgment. It is blind to the fundamental truth that communion with the Lord can never be our own achievement. It can only be the gift of the Lord; such is the nature of a love that is freely given.

The attitude of the tax collector, not even daring to raise his eyes to heaven, was entirely different: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The only judgment made by this tax collector was about himself, rather than others. He acknowledged himself as a sinner, entrusting himself to God’s mercy. The Pharisee lived with the illusion of his own grandeur and entitlement. The tax collector lived with the reality of a sinfulness that could not be denied, but sought salvation in its surrender to a merciful Father. Such is the gift of humility.

“This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.”