“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
That’s the prayer of the tax collector, and it’s the basis for a common devotion of the Eastern Church called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” a prayer that is repeated continually. It’s a great reminder that despite all that we do, we come as beggars to God. We come with nothing of our own because everything we have is from Him.
Marc Barnes, a brilliant young man who has a blog titled “Bad Catholic,” has this to say about our condition:
Surely we recognize that the universal postures of prayer are identical with those of the homeless man who begs by the gas station? Kneeling, pleading with fingers interwoven, imploring with hands folded, bowing, weeping, rocking, extending open palms — this is the dialect of the poor and the faithful, the common ground between the wealthy churchgoer and the beggar outside the door. Both are engaged in radical honesty about the nature of their existence.
That’s incredible wisdom from a 20-year-old college student, incredible all the more because of his recognition that he, too, is a beggar.
One of the dangers Christians throughout the ages have often fallen into is to think that somehow we are solely responsible for our spiritual growth, our piety, our personal holiness. This was also the problem that many of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had—the idea that keeping every detail of the Law would save them. Theologians have an old word for this belief: Pelagianism— a 5th century heresy that proposed that we can work our way to Heaven on our own merits without the assistance of God’s grace. It was a heresy in the 5th century no less than it is today, and it seems just as popular now as then.
Luke presents to us two opposing images in this parable: the Pharisee, who believes his pious practices justify him in God’s eyes, and the tax collector, who recognizes his sinfulness. One is rich with his own accomplishments, and the other is a spiritual beggar.
Now, I’m going to take this moment to confess that at times, I am a first-class Pharisee: self-righteous, quick to judge, unwilling to mix with the ritually impure—that has been me at various times in my life. How many other Pharisees do we have here today?
One of my father’s favorite stories to tell is about how I would always try to get my older brother in trouble for picking on me. “See how bad he is and how good I am?”
So I am guilty of being just like that Pharisee in the temple—of pointing to that guy over there who is so much worse than I am—I, who say my prayers, abstain from meat on Fridays, go to reconciliation every week, practice numerous devotions faithfully. I do such holy and pious things, and I go to Mass every Sunday, unlike those Christmas and Easter Catholics. See, God, see how holy I am? Unlike that guy in the back pew who works for the IRS. I’m so glad I’m not like the rest of those people.
I am guilty as charged. And that helps me to remember that I, too, am a spiritual beggar. I didn’t come by my practice of faith because I’m holy through my own natural ability. If I do any good, it is God who does it through me.
Now, I’m not saying that devotions are wrong, or that we shouldn’t pray, abstain on Fridays or perform penitential acts, or to practice devotions with love. These are good things to do out of love for God, just as acts of charity are good to do out of love for our neighbor.
However, when these acts become matters of pride for me, when I assess myself approvingly in comparison to that sinner over there, when I take my acts as being from my own merit, I am that Pharisee Jesus warns us about in the Gospel of Luke.
It’s sadly easy to slip into the complacent mindset that it’s all about my doing things. But it’s really about letting something be done to me.
- It’s not about how often I go to confession, but whether I let Jesus heal my sinfulness.
- It’s not about whether I pray the rosary every day, but whether I let the mysteries of Christ’s life change me into Christ.
- It is not about whether I darken the door of a church every Sunday. It’s about whether I let Christ lighten the doorway of my heart.
Jesus isn’t telling us not to be concerned with outward holiness and outward practices, but He is saying that we need to have the inner disposition to match, and that comes through humility, through recognizing that it isn’t all about me and my doing through recognizing that I am the one who usually avoids picking up my cross through seeing myself as someone who begs to God daily for the grace to not lie, steal, and cheat my neighbor in those subtle ways that we modern people do.
Jesus Christ,Son of God,have mercy on me… a sinner.
We are beggars for every gift we have, especially for God’s grace. For that reason, God in His mercy gave us His only Son. We are beggars at the table of His Eucharist, this Holy Communion in which we are about to share. Verse 17 of today’s first reading from Sirach 35 is a good reminder of how we should approach our prayer. I especially like the RSV version of it: “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.”
So let’s pray like the beggars we are, and let us show our gratitude for God’s mercy, by giving back generously to Him.