Stand Before the Lord
by Rev. William Saunders
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
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, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
How do you and I stand before the Lord? Are we justified in the eyes of Christ or are we justified in the eyes of ourselves and the eyes of the world? Consider the Gospel parable addressed “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness.”
Two men went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a member of the powerful religious party that strictly upheld the Torah laws. He positioned himself proudly and conspicuously. In his prayer, he boasted of his own righteousness, but by his own standard. Yes, he paid tithes and fasted, but those were the minimum requirements set by the Torah; what about doing other good works and making real sacrifices to help others? He did not commit serious sins, like adultery, but what about venial sins, internal sins of thought, and omissions? He considered himself not like the rest of sinful humanity, including the tax collector; can anyone honestly make such a sweeping judgment?
A key phrase of the text is he “spoke this prayer to himself.” He prayed to himself. He is the standard of righteousness. He has no sin. He has checked all the boxes on his checklist of holiness. Filled with pride, this man has no need for God nor for others. So, he left unjustified in the eyes of God. Pride is like molten iron that hardens the soul, weighs it down and sinks it to hell. The gates of hell are forged with the iron of pride.
On the other hand, the tax collector stood in the shadows with head bowed, striking his breast, simply saying, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Keep in mind that tax collectors were labeled as sinners. They were the pariahs of Jewish society because they worked for Rome, the pagan, evil empire. Also, they made their income by collecting an increment set by law to the tax base; however, most inflated the increment and pocketed extra money for themselves at the expense of their fellow Jews.
Now we do not know anything about this particular tax collector. He may have been totally honest.
However, he humbled himself before God. He boasted of no good deeds. He compared himself to no one else and made no excuses. He simply knew he was a sinner in need of God’s mercy. He left, justified in the eyes of God. Humility expands the soul so that the Lord can fill it with grace — his divine life and love — and lift the soul to heaven.
We need to be on guard. Poor children of Adam and Eve, victims of original sin, we must guard against pride. We must not be self-justified and stand in church praying to ourselves, “I do the required minimum — Mass on Sunday and grace at meals. I give something to the church, a charity or two. I am definitely better than my neighbor, even the guy in the other pew. I have no sin, and I don’t need confession. I am a good person, well thought of in the community, work and political party. When I die, I am sure my funeral will be a canonization. And by the way Lord, you ought to be happy I am here today.”
No, we must stand before the Lord as poor humble sinners imploring his mercy. For this reason, we pause at the beginning of Mass, examine ourselves, and, like the tax collector, strike our breast begging for God’s mercy for our sins of commission and omission.
Then having humbly worshipped the Lord at Mass and received the gift of the holy Eucharist, we leave not self-justified, but rather renewed, to run the race, fight the good fight and keep the faith, as St. Paul taught in the Epistle. Rather than doing the minimum, we strive to do the best we can with the help of God’s grace. We want to be like the saints, all of whom did not consider themselves as “saints,” but as poor sinners in need of God’s mercy. If that is our strategy and the standard of righteousness is Jesus, a crown of righteousness awaits. Yes, the gates of hell are forged with the iron of self-righteous pride, but the stairs of heaven are polished with the tears of the humble who prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”