Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read Luke 18:9–14
Warning: embarrassing confession ahead.
I want priests to like me. I want them to recognize my excellent work, think I am holy, notice my attendance at Mass, and hear how saintly I am in the confessional. Why? A small faith and enormous pride hold my face down in the lie that past sins aren’t forgiven and salvation is the result of my good efforts. In other words, I need the priest to see how virtuous I am today because of how miserable I was yesterday.
Before you think that I am the only woman that prides herself on being virtuous, ask yourself:
Have I ever scanned the church pews and thought, I may not be perfect, but I’m not as bad as her.
Or, At least I go to church on Sunday and don’t skip it to play pickleball like some people I know!
Today’s gospel reading asks us to consider our attitude and posture of prayer before God.
A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a bar. Okay, not really. They go up to the temple to pray. Remember, the Pharisees were the Jews who can’t stand Jesus. They wanted to trap (Matthew 22:15–17), catch (Matthew 12:2), and push Him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). So concerned with rituals, traditions, and outward observances, they were distracted from what matters most to God: “justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). And the tax collectors? They were the Jews who collaborated with the occupying Roman forces by collecting taxes from their own people. Not cool. The Pharisees considered them sinners and second-class citizens; recall how they complained, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30).
At the temple, the Pharisee stood and thanked God for not being a terrible sinner like the tax collector. Presuming his outward behavior guaranteed him a spot in heaven, he paraded his achievements before the Lord. The tax collector stood off at a distance and, without daring to raise his eyes, beat his breast in anguish as he pleaded for God’s mercy: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Spoiler alert: the tax collector goes home justified, not the Pharisee. “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Two things grab me. The first is to whom Jesus addresses the parable: “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (Luke 18:9). Despising others sounds pretty harsh, and I’m quick to defend myself; I don’t despise anyone! People annoy me, but that’s only because they are annoying. I don’t despise them. And yet I know from experience that it is impossible to pat myself on the back without simultaneously looking down on others.
The second is the posture of prayer. John Bartunek writes, “The Pharisee’s sin was much greater than ‘greed, dishonesty, or adultery’; it was the sin of thinking he didn’t need God.” Notice that he asks for nothing and offers no adoration or confession. He is praying to himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, approaches God with a posture of humility and beats his chest. You may see people today who, while reciting the Penitential Act, strike their chest three times praying, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” (or in Latin, “mea culpa mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”). To pound one’s heart was, and remains, an outward sign of inward contrition. The tax collector’s prayer was perfect in its simplicity because it recognized God’s mercy.
When a spiritual roadblock intersected my life, I was advised to seek out a Mass where nobody but God knew my name. I enjoyed the anonymity. The struggle was having no relationship with the priest. How would I be able to impress him if he never received the memo about how great I am?
I remember the first time I went to confession to an unknown priest and kneeled behind a screen. I was accustomed to personally knowing my confessor, sitting face to face as we chatted about my sins over coconut lattes while braiding each other’s hair. With my ear pressed against the screen, eyes closed, I whispered, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” and what occurred took me by surprise. For the first time, I meant it. I was a miserable sinner who had broken God’s heart and was in desperate need of His mercy. With empty hands, I exposed the filth of my heart, keeping any good deeds to myself. They are, after all, polluted rags (Isaiah 64:6).
Ephesians 2:8–9 reminds us that, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one may boast.” So why are we boasting? Why do we feel the urge to present our best selves to our Lord? Jesus didn’t come to save the proud, dying-to-be-seen woman in the front pew. He came to save the humble sinner in the back, praying that nobody sees her. He preached, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), not “blessed are the most capable ladies with no need for Me.”
God doesn’t want your credentials. He’s after your heart. As St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori said, “The truly humble reject all praise for themselves and refer it all to God.”
Food for thought or journaling…
What is your attitude when you approach God in prayer?
Humbly bring your answer to the throne of grace, and with the tax collector pray:
O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
 Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, RSV, Second Catholic Edition (Ignatius Press, 2010), 69.
 John Bartunek, The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer (Avila Institute, 2007), 716.
 John Bartunek, The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer (Avila Institute, 2007), 715.