I suppose we were all taught in childhood not to look down our nose at anyone. It is one of the important lessons of life and any good parent would be keen that their child understood this lesson very well.
Unfortunately not everything we learn in childhood stays with us into adulthood. As we grow up and increasingly acquire our own personal autonomy we can forget what we were taught by our parents unless it was deeply ingrained into us.
The Pharisee in today’s reading seems to have completely forgotten what his mother taught him, if indeed she did teach him anything. Jesus describes him in the Temple apparently praying but actually not praying at all but instead looking down his nose at his neighbour. He talks not to God but to himself.
This Pharisee sees himself as a superior being. Of course, it is important to have a sufficient degree of self-worth otherwise a person would end up as a doormat. But this Pharisee is taking things too far; he looks down on his neighbours with a great deal of distain.
He thinks that the tax collector is some kind of lower life form; indeed he sees himself as far above most of the rest of humanity. He is so caught up in his own self-regard that he has forgotten the purpose of his visit to the Temple which is to pray.
Jesus gets it just right when he tells us that this man is exalting himself when he really ought to be preparing himself for his downfall which is surely not far away.
On the other hand the tax collector is extremely well aware of the purpose of his visit to the Temple. He has come there to pray and to talk openly and frankly to God. He knows that he is unworthy and that he is badly in need of God’s mercy and he is there in the Temple to ask for it.
The prayer of the tax collector is one of humility, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ It is a prayer that anyone could say; perhaps even a prayer that most people actually need to say. It is a frank admittance that he has fallen short of the ideals proposed to us by God. But also in these words he expresses the wish to change and asks God’s help to enable him to become a better person.
Every teacher or professor has their favourite expressions which they use very frequently. Perhaps because of this their students remember them well. My rector of students was always coming out with the phrase, ‘Humility is truth.’
In this short phrase he was telling us something very important. He was telling us that true humility was looking at one’s situation as it actually was. It meant not putting yourself higher or lower than you really were. Anything other than an actual honest appraisal of one’s situation was therefore an example of false humility.
Often people when they present themselves to others as being very humble pretend that they are lower than other people. The character from literature that they most resemble is Uriah Heep in Dicken’s novel David Copperfield. He was an obsequious and insincere character who was always rubbing his hands together and saying that he was, ‘Ever so humble.’
What the Uriah Heeps of this world are guilty of is false humility. They are not to be believed and actually their insincerity is simply a mechanism to gain advantage over others which is as far from true humility as one could get.
The tax collector in our parable, however, shows true humility because he tells God his story with complete honesty and truthfulness. He knows he is a sinner and simply begs God for the forgiveness he knows he needs more than anything.
One of the important things that Jesus is telling us in this parable is for the need of real honesty in prayer. Anything less than complete openness is counter-productive when it comes to prayer. After all, you may be able to fool other people, you may even be able to fool yourself, but the one person you cannot fool is God. He knows our situation better than anyone and certainly far better than ourselves.
Hypocrisy and false-humility have absolutely no place in our prayer life. When we pray we have to be completely open. Actually it is often through prayer that we come to realise our own worse mistakes. Often in the hurly-burly of life we can overlook our own character faults; it is easy to excuse or to make light of the negative aspects of our personality that are extremely obvious to everyone else.
By being completely honest and open with God we come to a deeper awareness of our own mistakes and errors. But it is also in those moments of truth that we are sometimes able to come to an appreciation of the many gifts that we also possess.
What happens is that we come to a realisation of where we actually are in relation to God. We see our faults but also our abilities.
What we end up doing is resolving to overcome our faults but, just as importantly, we also become determined to develop the gifts and talents that God has given us. In this way we progressively become more rounded and well balanced citizens of the world.
And this is what God wants. He wants people who are balanced and strong and who can make a real contribution to the world. He wants disciples who are self-aware and who use the gifts they have been given in the service of the Gospel. He does not appreciate those who are out of balance or who either exaggerate or under-value their abilities.
What the world needs is people who are honest with themselves and who are in harmony with God and therefore with other people.
The important thing to realise about this parable is that both of these men were in the Temple to pray. Of course, one did pray and the other didn’t. I’m sure that your motive in coming to Church was the very same; you came here to pray. Well, please do so. Please pray and ask God to help you to come to a true and honest appreciation of your place in the world and what you need to do to gain eternal life.
This is what the world needs more than anything: people who pray. It needs a sufficient number of people in society who are at peace with and in close touch with God. Those who pray have a big task because there are many others who won’t or can’t pray and they need people around them who know how to do it and who can carry them along as they pray.
So let us pray often and let us pray well, let us pray in a truthful and honest way, and by doing so let us build up the world and bring a real sense of hope to the people who live in it.
St Joseph's Catholic Church
191 High Road
18.00 (Vigil with Hymns)
09.30 (Family Mass)
11.00 (Solemn Mass)
12.30 (With Hymns)
Weekdays: 07.30 & 10.00
Confessions: Saturday 10.30-11.00 & 19.00-19.30
St Joseph's Catholic Church
T: 020 8427 1955
Saturday: 18.00 (Vigil with Hymns)
Sunday: 08.15, 09.30 (Family Mass), 11.00 (Solemn Mass), 12.30, 18.00
Weekdays: 07.30, 10.00 - additional mass every first Friday at 19.00
Saturday: 11.00 & 19.00-19.30
First Friday: 18.00-18.45
EXPOSITION & BENEDICTION
First Friday: 18.00-18-45