Luke 18:9-14
Prayer that Pierces the Clouds
by Rev. Jack Peterson, YA
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.  "Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.  The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous - or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'  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.'  I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled  humbled, and humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." 

Jesus tells a parable of two kinds of Jews with whom all Jews of His day are familiar and most dislike. There is the Pharisee who knows the law, keeps the commandments and practices the faith, but some have a reputation for being hypocritical, judgmental and hung up on externals. Then there is the tax collector who is considered both a traitor to the Jewish people and a thief who extorts more than the people owe to the Romans as a means to personal wealth. Both enter the temple area to pray. Jesus says that one goes home justified and the other does not. Why? 

St. Luke gives the simple answer to this question in the introduction to the parable: “Jesus addressed this parable to those
who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” The sin of pride, which is at the root of all sin, often leads to an attitude of self-righteousness that is offensive to both man and God. It also leads one to look down upon and even despise our neighbor.

The Pharisee’s prayer is pretty ugly: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I pay tithes on my whole income.” The Pharisee has convinced himself that he is earning his salvation by good works alone, not by God’s mercy and generosity. We can’t make ourselves right with God without His assistance. Plus, this Pharisee is looking down his nose at everyone around him.

Sadly, I think if we are honest with ourselves, most of us have at least been tempted to offer a similar prayer. “I am not like my classmates who have sex every weekend with a different person; I am not like my officemates who are so lazy and self-centered; I am not like my husband/wife who can be so selfish and never tries to understand what I am going through right now.”

In contrast, Jesus praises the tax collector who stands off at a distance (in part because he was not allowed in the temple proper), does not even feel comfortable raising his eyes to heaven, strikes his breast and prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” There are no proclamations about others in this prayer and no statements of how good he is. Rather, there is only a humble admittance of being a sinner and a simple request for God’s tender mercy. This prayer is very pleasing to God.

The inspired author of the Book of Sirach addresses this same truth from an Old Testament perspective: “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds: It does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds.”

The Mass is full of opportunities for us to imitate the tax collector and offer to God the prayer of the lowly. During the penitential rite, if we recite the Confiteor, we strike our breast three times admitting our most grievous fault. If we use the other common form of the penitential rite, we beg God three times to have mercy on us. The Mass follows with the Gloria (on Sundays and solemnities), which admits that Jesus takes away the sins of the world and implores God again to “have mercy on us.” As we approach holy Communion, we proclaim the Agnus Dei, which repeats our need for God’s tender mercies. We also repeat the beautiful words of the Roman centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

At the start of Pope Francis’ famous interview with the Jesuit journalist Father Antonio Spadaro, he was asked: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?” After pausing for a moment, Pope Francis responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. … I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” How refreshing and humble.

It is clear what God wants from us, humble and contrite hearts. It is clear what helps spread our Christian faith around the world: humble and contrite hearts. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

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