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“The Tax Collector’s Prayers Are Essential,” Says Pope Francis


Aleteia - published on 06/01/16

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus teaches us an important lesson on prayer.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray…” (Lk. 18:10).

VATICAN CITY — This morning at the Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis continued his catechesis for the Year of Mercy, turning today to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and to an important lesson on prayer.

Here below is an English translation of the Pope’s full catechesis.

© Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA
© Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA

Dear brothers and sisters,

Good morning. Last Wednesday we heard the parable of the judge and the widow, on the need to pray with perseverance. Today, through another parable, Jesus wishes to teach us the right attitude for praying and invoking the Father’s mercy; how we ought to pray; the right attitude for prayer. It is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. (cf. Lk 18:9-14).

Both men go up to the temple to pray, but they act in very different ways, and obtain the opposite results. The Pharisee prays “standing” (v. 11), and uses many words. His is, yes, a prayer of thanksgiving addressed to God, but in reality it is a display of his own merits, with a sense of superiority over “other men,” described as “extortioners, unjust, adulterers,” as, for example, — and he signals the other who was there — “this tax collector” (v. 11).

But this is precisely where the problem lies: The Pharisee prays to God, but in reality looks to himself. He prays to himself! Instead of having the Lord before his eyes, he has a mirror. Although he is in the temple, he does not feel the need to prostrate himself before the majesty of God; he stands, he feels secure, almost as though he were the lord of the temple! He lists the good works he has accomplished: he is irreprehensible, observant of the Law beyond what is required, he fasts “twice a week” and pays “tithes” on all he possesses. In short, more than praying, the Pharisee takes pleasure in his own observance of the precepts. Yet his attitude and his words are far from God’s way of acting and and speaking, who loves all people and does not despise sinners. On the contrary, the Pharisee despises sinners, even when he notes the one who is there. In short, the Pharisee, who thinks he is righteous, neglects the most important commandment: love for God and for neighbor.

It is not enough, therefore, to ask ourselves how much we pray; we also have to ask how we pray, or better, how our heart is: it is important to examine it, in order to evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and root out arrogance and hypocrisy. But I ask: can one pray with arrogance? No. Can one pray with hypocrisy? No. We must only pray by placing ourselves before God as we are. Not like the Pharisee who prayed with arrogance and hypocrisy. We are all taken from the frenzy of the daily rhythm, often at the mercy of feelings, overwhelmed, and confused. We need to learn how to find the path to our hearts, retrieve the value of intimacy and silence, because that is where God meets us and speaks with us. Only by beginning there can we, in turn, encounter others and talk with them. The Pharisee has set out towards the temple, he is self-assured, but he does not realize that he has lost the way to his heart.

The tax collector, on the other hand — the other one — presents himself in the temple with a humble and repentant soul: “Standing far off, he would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast” (v. 13). His prayer is very short, it is not as long as the Pharisee’s: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Nothing more. What a beautiful prayer! In fact, tax collectors — called “publicans” — were considered impure people, submissive to foreign rulers, were disliked by the people and typically associated with “sinners.” The parable teaches us that a man is righteous or a sinner, not in virtue of his social class, but by the way he relates to God and treats his brothers and sisters.

The tax collector’s acts of repentance, and his few and simple words, witness to his awareness of his poor condition. His prayer is essential, i.e. simple. He acts humbly, sure only of being a sinner in need of pity. If the Pharisee asked nothing because he already had everything, the tax collector can only beg for God’s mercy. And this is beautiful: to beg for the mercy of God! By presenting himself “with empty hands,” with a naked heart and seeing himself as a sinner, the tax collector shows all of us the necessary condition for receiving the Lord’s forgiveness. In the end, it is he who, so despised, becomes an icon of the true believer.

Jesus concludes the parable with a sentence: “I tell you, this man — that is, the tax collector — went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14). Of these two, which one is corrupt? The Pharisee. The Pharisee is the image of the corrupt man who pretends to pray, but manages only to show off in front of a mirror. He is a corrupt man and pretends to pray. Thus, in life one who is self-righteous, and judges others and despises them, is corrupt and hypocritical. Pride compromises every good action, it empties prayer, it distances one from God and others.

If God prefers humility, it is not to degrade us: rather, humility is the necessary condition for being raised up by him, so as to experience the mercy that comes to fill our voids. If the prayer of the proud does not reach the heart of God, the humility of the poor throws it open. God has a weakness: a weakness for the humble. Before a humble heart, God opens his heart completely. It is this humility which the Virgin Mary expresses in her canticle, the Magnificat: “He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. […] His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk 1:48,50). May our Mother help us to pray with humble hearts. And let us repeat three times that beautiful prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Translated by Diane Montagnaof Aleteia’s English edition.

Pope FrancisPrayer
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