One of the often repeated themes of Sacred Scripture is the special care God has for the poor, the underprivileged, and the outcasts of society. We find that theme in the Old Testament. There is a beautiful, poetic verse in the book of Sirach saying, "The Lord God hears the cry of the oppressed and He is not deaf to the wail of the orphan; the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds."
St. Luke is especially known for his sympathy for the plight of the outcasts. His Gospel is sometimes called the Gospel of the Great Pardons, for He tells the stories of the woman taken in adultery, the forgiveness of the paralytic, and the good thief on the cross. Today he tells the parable story of the Pharisee and the Publican.
If ever there was an outcast of society in the time of Jesus, it was the local tax collector or publican. He had plenty of power and plenty of money, most of it skimmed off the taxes he collected. He had the power to make the final decision on how much each family must pay. But he had no friends. As Mother Theresa pointed out, the poorest of the poor are those who are unloved. And the tax collector was the greatest of the unloved.
But in this parable, the tax collector has repented all the crimes that he committed. He kneels in the very back of the temple, unworthy to approach and confess his sinfulness to the Lord. But the Pharisee, standing proudly in the front of the temple, trumpets his achievements. I once heard a story about a man who always found fault with everyone, and especially his wife. She could do nothing right. One morning, she asked what he wanted for breakfast. He said, "I want some orange juice, coffee, bacon, toast, and 2 eggs, one fried, one scrambled. She worked hard to prepare the best possible meal, set it on the table, then waited for his approval. He looked at the meal and said, "You've messed it up again; you scrambled the wrong egg.”
The Pharisee in the parable was like that man. Nobody except him could do anything right; you can hear the arrogance in how he makes his prayer in the temple: "I thank you that I am not like the rest of men grasping, crooked, like this miserable tax collector.”
The man who went home from the temple justified was the tax collector, the one who recognized his sinfulness and asked for God's mercy.
When we read the parables told by Jesus in the Gospels, we usually identify with one of the characters depicted in the story. If I were to ask you with whom in this story you most easily identify, you would probably say the tax collector. That means we like what he did. But it also means we think we are more like him than we are like the Pharisee. And that is something we need to question. If most of us are like the tax collector, there would be no point in Jesus telling this story. He is suggesting, ever so subtly, that maybe we are sometimes very much like the Pharisee.
Jesus asks us to reflect on the actions of our own lives, the time we judged ourselves better than others, the times we didn't give to the poor or the missions or local needy persons because we felt we had already done our fair share.
This morning we are asked to reflect on these and other actions of our lives, then to begin our Liturgy by saying with the tax collector, and saying it with conviction: "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Amen.