Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

Who's in Charge of the Heart?

When was the last time you bragged? Or acted humble? Were either justified? Why?

Let's face it. We all brag at times. And we all act humble at other times. Sometimes the brag or the humble voice is justified. Parents brag about children. Leaders exercise direction through quiet service. Both can be appropriate, depending upon the context.

The context can make each inappropriate. Especially when the context is the heart. Is the heart self-centered or other-centered? After all, the prayer of the self-focused is unheard, because it is simply self-talk. But, even the selfish can have a glimmer of hope, when his prayer finds its root in humility.

Jesus highlighted the hearts of the proud and the humble in a simple parable.

Popular Translation

9 Jesus told a parable to those people who thought they were the only ones pleasing God and who hated everyone else.

10 Once, a Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee stood out in front of everyone. 11 "Thank you, God," the Pharisee prayed silently. "I'm not like other people who are liars, sinners, cheaters, or even like this tax collector. 12 I usually fast twice a week. And I usually give money to charities from everything I earn."

13 But the tax collector stood alone and stared at the floor. He looked like he was very sorry for what he did. "God, have mercy on me. I'm a sinner," he kept saying.

14 I tell you the tax collector went home at peace with God, not the Pharisee. For, the proud will be humbled. But the humble will receive great honor.

Inside this parable, Jesus turned the notion of righteousness upside down. Against common wisdom, religious lifestyle, as important as it is, does not (and cannot) measure a relationship with God. We cannot make progress to someone, who by definition, is infinite. Only a heart that is open to God can grow close to him, because the open heart lets God come close. We can't grow close to God by ourselves. But God can come close to us. Because he is God.

Literal Translation

9 HE told some, having convinced themselves that they were righteous and looking down upon everyone else, a parable: 10 "Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisees and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, having stood (before everyone in the Temple), to himself prayed these (words), 'God, I thank you that I am indeed not like the rest of men, swindlers, Law-breakers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I (always) fast twice a week and pay a tithe on everything, as much as I earn.' 13 But, the tax collector, having stood far off, (really) did not want to raise his eyes to heaven, but kept beating his breast, saying, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' 14 I say to you, this (man) went down (from the Temple) to his house, having been made right than that (man). For everyone who exalting himself will be humbled, and the one humbling himself will be exalted."

18:11 "to himself prayed" The Pharisee prayed to himself. This could either mean he prayed "in silence." Or, he prayed "with reference to himself," in opposition to the tax collector who would be introduced at the end of the verse.

"swindlers, Law-breakers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector" Jesus deliberately painted the "the rest of men" as his own core audience, outcasts in need of God's mercy. Notice, in the prejudice of the Pharisee, Jesus divided the world into the self-righteous and the everyone else who needed God's mercy. Jesus would use this logic against the Pharisee in his moral.

18:12 The Pharisee bragged of behavior that stood above and beyond the Law. In the rabbinic traditions that succeeded the Pharisee movement, such fasting and tithing were the norm. Many have speculated that these traditions began with the Pharisees, but the evidence is inconclusive. However, the Pharisees were clearly concerned with a strict lifestyle as the norm for all Jews. For them, such matters had more weight than questions of doctrine.

18:13 "(really) did not want to raise his eyes to heaven" The main clause has a double negative, emphasizing the tax man's reluctance to assume a prayer posture.

Who is in charge of my spiritual life, me or God?

In Luke's gospel, Jesus described two men with vastly different outlooks: a self-righteous Pharisees and a humbled tax collector. Jesus used community status, physical location, and body language to paint the differences between the men.

A. Community Status

The Pharisees practiced a form of Judaism that required strict observance of the Law. Pharisees even developed rules that helped people from breaking the Law. Over time, these codes and guidelines grew into a lifestyle for the faithful. Why did the people follow such a strict and extensive list of rules? The Pharisees taught that following God's law meant doing God's will and peering into the mind of God. Following the Law perfectly meant fulfilling God's will perfectly and being that much closer to God.

Because their intricate knowledge of the Law, Pharisees functioned as civic and religious leaders within the Jewish community. People depended on them for rulings on civil law and for spiritual comfort. So, Pharisees had status and power in the eyes of the community.

With status came power and the temptation to abuse that power. It was (and is) easy to use a position to satisfy one's own needs for possessions, or fame, and then criticize others for their lack. Jesus painted an unflattering image of the Pharisee as a foil for his teaching against this abuse of status. [18:9]

If the Pharisee was the ultimate insider, the tax collector was the ultimate outsider. Since the tax collector worked for the occupying forces of Rome, he or she was considered a traitor. Looked upon as money-leeches and opportunists, tax collectors were universally hated by the Jewish population.

B. Physical Location and Body Language

Both men went up to the Temple to pray. [18:10] Both the action (walking from the lower part of the city up the stairs to the Temple platform) and the intent (to pray ) reflected the spirituality of each person.

On the one hand, the Pharisee stood and prayed silently. [18:11a]. The verb "stood" has two meanings; the Pharisee had a place of honor in view of others to pray and used this place to make a spiritual statement ("stand up for what he believed.") The silent prayer of the Pharisee revealed the inner meaning of his "standing statement." He thanked God he separated himself from the evil mass of humanity: robbers, sinners, and adulterers, even tax collectors! [18:11b] Since the Pharisee defined what he was not, he continued to justify himself before God by what he did. By fasting twice a week and tithing everything he possessed, the Pharisee went beyond the letter of the Law. [18:12] When he did more than the Law required, the Pharisee knew he was close to God.

On the other hand, the tax collector stood at a distance from the Temple (with the rest of mankind), would not even look to heaven, and beat his breast. Unlike the proud Pharisee who could brag about his accomplishments, the tax collector had nothing but a broken heart to present to God. The only prayer the tax collector could make was a petition for mercy. [18:13]

Both men went home. God answered the prayer of the tax collector for mercy; since the man was forgiven by God, he was now justified in God's eyes. But, God could not justify the Pharisee, for his "standing statement" was not a prayer at all; since the Pharisee did not ask for anything, how could he receive anything? [18:14a]

Jesus ended the parable with a moral about true Christian spirituality. God loves those who are humble enough to ask for his love; God loves those who are humble enough to help others. [18:14b] How can God help those who are too proud to ask for help and to arrogant to help others?

One final note about the parable. The Pharisee acted as a "straw man," the caricature to illustrate the parable's point. We should not be tempted to think that all Pharisees acted in this way, for most were not as self-centered and vain as the one in this story. Even at the time Luke wrote his gospel, Christian leaders faced the same temptations of self-importance as the Pharisee in this story. Even if there was hatred between Judaism of the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus in the early centuries A.D., we should not apply the same prejudices to our modern day either against Jews or their ancestors in faith, the Pharisees. The parable simply used the image of a self-centered Pharisee to preach against the abuses of a "me-first" spirituality.

Catechism Theme: Prayer as God's Gift

2559 "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God." But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or "out of the depths" of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that "we do not know how to pray as we ought," are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. "Man is a beggar before God."

This paragraph from the Catechism places the moral of the parable in relief. In spite of our Catholic experience, even our knowledge of prayer forms, we do not know how to approach God. Because we are creatures, we should not be able to approach the Unknowable; to presume otherwise is to place ourselves on God's level, which is clearly absurd. Yet, because of faith, we dare to approach and ask; because of humility, we are open to receive prayer as a gift.

God gives all good things to us, even prayer. This might be a good time to look upon our prayer lives and reflect on God's goodness to us. How have our prayers, our prayer habits, our insights from prayer, even our urges to pray gifts from God? How has prayer and the need for prayer humbled us? How has prayer brought us closer to God?

Who's in charge of the heart? This question cuts to the heart of spirituality. That which stands at the very core of the person becomes the battleground. Are we in charge? Or is God?

If we believe God is in charge, how do we know God is close? We cannot know (or brag) through our own efforts. We can only know when we allow God in. When we open our hearts to him. And his love.

Opening the heart is a life-long process. We progress one moment and one issue at a time. We can take a quick measure by looking at our focus. Is it one focused on God and others? Or, is it focused on the self?

This is not an "either-or" proposition, but a continuum. We focus on ourselves in some issues. But we focus outside the self in others. This week, take an issue that you might find a self-oriented. Place the issue before God. And, see what happens.