These past few weeks in the Gospels we’ve been hearing about prayer. And today we hear two prayers, the prayer of the tax collector and the prayer of the Pharisee. And so I ask the question, why was the tax collector’s prayer better than the Pharisee’s prayer? His prayer was better because he made a connection with God; he was praying to God, while the Pharisee only made a connection to himself, he was praying only to himself. Saying to himself look at me I’m so holy.
At that time tax collectors were despised by the Jewish community. Tax collectors were the Jews who collaborated with the occupying Roman forces by collecting taxes from their fellow Jews. They often collected more than the law required and pocketed the rest. They were considered ritually unclean and had no right to enter the Temple. St Matthew was a tax collector before our Lord called him to be an apostle. The Pharisees were the exact opposite. They were the most respected members of the Jewish community, the elite, and the undisputed religious leaders of the nation.
And yet, Jesus praises the tax collector’s prayer and criticizes the Pharisee’s prayer. Theologians see in the tax collector’s simple 8 word prayer, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” a complete summary of Christian spirituality. There are many monks who pray this prayer as they meditate. This prayer, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” when prayed devoutly from the heart makes a connection with God because it recognizes two things. First it recognizes God’s greatest quality in relation to us, his mercy. The word mercy comes from the Latin word “misericors” which when broken down to its two parts is miser: wretched, miserable and cor: heart. Literally the word mercy, means to take someone else’s wretchedness and misery into one’s own heart. There are old holy cards from the 19th century that depict this. They show the soul in the form of a little bird flying into the pierced opening of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. That’s what our Lord does with us; if we let him, he takes us into his merciful heart. Second, the tax collector’s prayer recognizes his need for that mercy. He accuses himself of being a sinner, someone who has selfishly abused God’s gifts and has used his neighbor for selfish gain. The Pharisee’s prayer on the other hand shows no knowledge of God’s mercy or of his need for it; his prayer is an exercise in self-admiration. Our Lord wants to take us into his heart, but he can only do that if we let him, acknowledging our need for mercy.
Bernard Nathanson was such a man who late in life came to realize his need for mercy, his need to be drawn into the heart of our Lord. No one did more to legalize abortion in this country than the famous atheist doctor, Bernard Nathanson. In the 1960s, he and a handful of collaborators set to work to legalize abortion. As he recounts in his book they fabricated statistical studies, they leveraged the media dishonestly, they lobbied Washington, and they mounted a legal strategy that manipulated abused women. They used every means available, much of it immoral. He helped to open the door to the more than 60 million abortions that have been performed in this country since 1973. 75,000 of which were performed by Dr. Nathanson himself, he even aborted his own child.
But with the development of the ultrasound things changed for Dr. Nathanson. The ultrasound enabled him to see what happens inside the womb during an abortion. It stopped him cold. He stopped performing abortions and became a pro-life activist. But he still couldn’t sleep at night. Often he’d wake up in a cold sweat haunted by the thousands of lives that he had ended. He began to think about committing suicide. He just couldn’t live with himself. As he says in his book he needed to wash away his sins, but he couldn’t find a way of doing it. At this point in his life, he witnessed a silent pro-life demonstration outside an abortion clinic in New York City. It was a moment of grace. He saw people praying; he saw their faith and he saw their peace, he was intrigued and began to think there might be some hope for him. A priest reached out to him soon afterwards and in 1996 at the age of 70 Dr. Nathanson was received into the Church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He was baptized, confirmed, and made his first holy communion. His sins were forgiven. Asked later why he entered the Catholic Church he said, “No religion matches the special role for forgiveness that is afforded by the Catholic Church.”
Our Lord loves going after the sinner he loves going after each of us. This is one of the characteristics of our Lord that we should brag about and think about, and delight in. No sin is too big for Christ’s mercy. We should never doubt the size of his heart. His mercy is infinite like the ocean. Even the greatest sins are small and finite when compared to the immensity of his ocean of mercy. We could think of all our sins as fitting into those small plastic buckets we take to the beach, all of our sins heaped into that bucket. It’s very foolish to think our little bucket is too large and deep to be ever filled to overflowing by his ocean of mercy. The only thing that can hold back God’s mercy is when we refuse to receive him. He will not force his way into our life. He respects our freedom but as soon as we turn to him and reach out to him in reconciliation he rushes towards us and floods us with is his mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
This is why Jesus praised the tax collector’s prayer the tax collector knew his bucket was empty of grace and only contained sin, and so he let it be filled with mercy. The Pharisee on the other hand thought he could fill up his bucket all by himself, so he turned his back on mercy. Today’s first reading told us that, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds it does not rest until it reaches its goal.” Sirach also tells us that God is paying attention to the pleas of widows and orphans, the two most helpless groups of people in the ancient world. We too are helpless in our spiritual life, we need God. Only God knows the extent of the weaknesses, the wounds, and the sins that torture our souls. And today God is reminding us that he not only knows about them, but he’s poised to overwhelm them with his grace. All we have to do is turn to him, and say from the heart, “O God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley