Sometimes Jesus highlights two clearly opposed positions or circumstances
in his teaching, but most of the time these are merely talking points used
primarily for illustration: he does not reject or condemn Martha's love for
him, for example, only says that Mary had chosen the better part. In
today's Gospel reading Jesus gives credit to the prayer of the tax collector
and spurns the self-righteousness and contempt of the Pharisee but does not
simply see the two in complete and radical opposition.
What Jesus cherishes in the tax collector is the recognition of his sin and
his simple trusting stance before God's love and mercy in spite of that sin.
What Jesus does not make clear, at the risk of subverting the importance
of this principal message, is that God loves the Pharisee as well and takes
note of the fact that he also is making an effort to follow the Law and is
praying, even if it is in a manner that is blind and even harmful to his
spiritual life. The Pharisee might be a lost sheep, but he remains
one of the flock and one of those whom Jesus is trying to reach.
But how does this touch us personally in our prayer, our actions, and in
our growth in God? We need to realize that while in one sense we float
between these two positions, sometimes close to one in our feelings and the
ways that we act and sometimes closer to the other, yet in another sense
we are always both. Like the Pharisee we are yearning to be justified
before God, and especially justified by our own efforts, and at the same
time we recognize that even such a yearning is at root ungodly: our holiness
comes from God alone, as the tax collector realizes.
In this situation, about the only thing that we can do is to be attentive
to the problem, to concentrate on our desire for God (responding to his great
desire for us), and to pray like the dickens that He has mercy on us and
lifts us out of our spiritual poverty. And that he helps us realize
that it is precisely in that poverty, and only there, that we can be open
to receive his forgiveness, healing, and life.