There were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping night watch over their flock. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the lord shown around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger…”
When the angels went away from them to heaven the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go then to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So, they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in a manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:8-12, 15-19)
In this portion of the account of the birth of Jesus, Luke doesn’t relate this story as one would relate the stories on the 6 o’clock news. He’s creating a sacred narrative meant to teach the generations after him the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.
In the narrative, the blinding light of God’s glory appears in the dead of night to simple shepherds. From within the light angels proclaim the good news of the birth of a Messiah who is Lord. They speak to them of a sign, an image, that will teach them all they need to know about this child. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Luke mentions this twice in this short account. The angels tell the shepherds of the sign. Then Luke tells us that the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the sign for themselves. Let’s look into the meaning of this sign.
The two images, the swaddling clothes and the manger, speak volumes about this child. The
clothes used to wrap the baby are long strips of cloth. They’re wrapped around an infant to keep it secure and warm. But these long strips are reminiscent of another long strip of cloth that would wrap this child at the end of his adult life. The swaddling clothes are an image of Jesus’ shroud. His destiny was marked from the first moment of his life. Luke is telling us that Jesus’ death is an essential part of the good news.
The second image is of the child lying in a manger. By placing the child in a manger, a feeding trough, Luke is telling us that the good news is that this child will be, in some mysterious way, food for all people. John the evangelist makes the same point in a title he gives to Jesus, the Bread of Life. The image of the manger evokes the eucharistic meal where Jesus breaks the bread, where Jesus says, “This is my body which will be given for you.” Where Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.”
These two images stir up rich theological reflection. Throughout his gospel Luke will expand the image of the manger through his depiction of many meals Jesus ate with his disciples. Each meal presents an aspect of the eucharist. The meaning of the manger and the swaddling clothes become clear when they again come together at the Passover meal Jesus eats with his disciples, his last supper with them before sacrificing himself on the cross.
At the end of his nativity narrative Luke adds an essential note. “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary is the Church, you and I, and all those who, throughout the centuries heard of the child that was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Mary is all who gathered and who continue to gather to reflect on the meaning of his death when they come together to break the bread. Mary is all of us who recognize him. Recognize him when we pass on his story. Recognize him when we ponder the meaning of his death. Recognize him when we break the bread and share it.
ISAIAH 7:10-14 | ROMANS 1:1-7 | MATTHEW 1:18-24
Our Christmas reflection begins a few days early as we ponder the scripture readings for the last Sunday of Advent. We begin by listening to the most famous prophecy in the Old Testament.
At a time of grave national crisis, as kings were uniting to wage war against Judah’s king Ahaz, Isaiah delivered these words of hope to him. “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Isaiah was speaking to the dire situation Ahaz was facing, but at the same time, his prophecy was peering into the future. In today’s gospel, Matthew incorporates this prophecy into his infancy narrative that begins, like the story of King Ahaz, with a crisis.
Joseph had discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. He had decided to quietly dissolve the engagement until he had a dream. In the dream an angel explained to him that he and Mary were part of a divine intervention that was beginning to unfold through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Mary would give birth to a son who was to be named Jesus, Joshua in Hebrew, a name that focused his destiny. Joshua means: to deliver – to rescue – to save. He would be the long-awaited savior, a military leader.
Matthew then quoted Isaiah’s prophecy but implied a radically new interpretation. The child would be named Emmanuel, “which means ‘God is with us.’” For King Ahaz the child that was to be born would be supported by God’s power to rescue Judah from invading armies. Matthew declared that, at the very moment Joseph heard the angel’s message, Isaiah’s prophecy had come to fulfillment. This child named Jesus is literally “God with us!”
Lord Jesus, with you at our side we can take up the work
of establishing your kingdom here, on earth.
Give us courage and perseverance
we will need to let your light shine and your love reign.
ISAIAH 35:1-6A | JAMES 5:7-10 | MATTHEW 11:2-11
As we read the Advent scriptures we can feel a dramatic pressure building. There’s anticipation and a deep sense of hope within us. Think of the messianic prophecies Isaiah proclaimed to us over the past three weeks.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” “Strengthen the hand of the feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong fear not! Here is your God.”
When we think of the messiah and the new world to come, we’re filled with hope, which is the core of our Advent commemoration. But these words of hope can, and often do, backfire on us. We listen to these wonderful prophecies, and then look at the world we live in. We see the war in Ukraine, the heartbreaking starvation in parts of the world, the results of global warming, political corruption, a global refugee crisis – and on and on. It’s no wonder that there’s so much depression during the holidays. We’re torn between hope and despair.
James, in the portion of his letter that we read today, gives us some good spiritual advice. “Be patient brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You too must be patient.”
Yes, we must be patient but also deeply dedicated to the work of the promised kingdom. The messianic time will come through people like me and you who relentlessly work for justice, harmony, forgiveness and healing. In today’s first reading, Isaiah warns us that this work will be challenging, so he lifts up a prayer for us. “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: ‘Be strong, fear not! Here is your God.’”
Let’s recommit ourselves to the work of hope today. Let’s recommit ourselves to do the work of justice, reconciliation and healing as we pray during the Eucharist we celebrate today. “Our Father in heaven, we bless your name. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
ISAIAH 11:1-10 | ROMANS 15:4-9 | MATTHEW 3:1-12
We’re beginning our reflection this week with more of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic time. He reassures us that, no matter how devastated our world may seem to be, a “shoot shall sprout…a bud shall blossom.”
This sprout, this shoot, is the Messiah whose attributes Isaiah describes in detail. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord…He will judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted…He will strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”
Isaiah moves on to paint a poetic picture of the new world, the world of the Messianic time.“Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to guide them.” Isaiah sees a world rejoicing in peace and harmony. “There shall be no more ruin on my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
It may be difficult to take this prophecy seriously, today. Our world, and our country, are in turmoil with civic unrest, racial tensions, violence, corruption among the highest government officials,
religious leaders and even parents bribing to get their children into good schools. Even though we believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, realistically, the world he came to save is still a mess of violence and corruption. Let’s move on to the gospel to add Matthew’s insight into our reflection regarding the Messianic time.
He begins by quoting Isaiah 40:3. “A voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew presents John the Baptist as “the voice” declaring the advent of the new time. Interestingly, John doesn’t use the beautiful poetic images of Isaiah when he speaks about it. Instead, his voice publically condemns the religious leaders who are coming to him to be baptized as a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. He knew that they weren’t coming to him with repentant hearts.
“You brood of vipers!” He spits at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” There was nothing subtle about John’s condemnation. He understood that the world could never be changed by a powerful political leader even though he might conquer the whole world. His message proclaimed that the world would be transformed from the inside out!
He understood that laws wouldn’t change the world because they’re fragile band-aids to immediate problems, and that clever lawyers and politicians would inevitably squirm around them. Historically, political messiahs ended up thrusting the world into war and turmoil. No, these “messiahs” could never usher in the Messianic time.
The new world, the Messianic time, will appear and shed its light, through the human heart – a heart cleansed of ego – a heart filled with love. Saint Paul understood this when he wrote to the Romans, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14)
The message for this Second Sunday of Advent may sound simple, but it’s a profound challenge for every Christian. The new world will come when each of us empties ourselves and become Christ.
ISAIAH 2:1-5 | ROMANS 13:11-14 | MATTHEW 24:37-44
Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known passage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious political situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrustworthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in 721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Palestine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah delivered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she
has become! Zion, once full of fair
judgment, where saving justice used
to dwell, but now assassins! Your
silver has turned to dross, your wine
is watered. Your princes are rebels,
accomplices of brigands. All of them
greedy for presents and eager for
bribes, they show no justice to the
orphan, and the widow’s cause never
reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision, Jerusalem is transformed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming in from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dissolved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National borders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream into the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national borders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”
2 SAMUEL 5:1-3 | COLOSSIANS 1:12-20 | LUKE 23:35-43
We’re privileged to witness one of the most intimate moments in the life of Jesus. Luke captures the moment for us. It’s Friday, the day after Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. It’s Good Friday. Jesus has been nailed to the cross bar and lifted up. There are two insurgents being executed with him. One on a cross to his left and the other to his right. There isn’t anything awesome about the scene. It’s gruesome and ugly. It’s bloody and sadistic.
The religious leaders have banded together near the execution site. They’re grandstanding, shouting so that the crowd, and the people walking past the site, can clearly hear them. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Chosen One, the Christ of God.” The guards assigned to the execution begin to join in the jeering and the mockery. The whole thing is a macabre circus for them as they listen to the shouts of the religious leaders, and read Pilate’s sarcastic decree of execution. So, they shout, too. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
In the midst of this madness, one of the crucified begins to join in with the religious leaders and the guards. “Are you not the Messiah. Save yourself and us!” His voice is constricted by pain and the terrible anger that rages inside of him. His choice to fight for the liberation of Israel brought him to his cross. The socalled Messiah being crucified with him did nothing to further the liberation of Israel, yet the focus is on this holy loser.
Then, another voice can be heard. A rebuke comes from the other cross. “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”
A few hours ago, Judas, a once follower of Jesus, embraced him, and kissed him. Now, a new disciple, a crucified disciple, turns toward Jesus to kiss him. For a few moments, the shouts, the rebukes, the noise, the suffering stops. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ words kiss him in return. “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I shut out the world and its noise.
I look beyond my suffering and the suffering of my human family.
I kiss the Lord of life.
I let my heart speak.
Jesus, Christ, my King,
remember me when you come into your kingdom.
MALACHI 3:19-20A | 2 THESSALONIANS 3:7-12 | LUKE 21:5-19
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the end of the liturgical year becomes a metaphor for the end of the world as we know it. Our world with its violence, its greed and power lust, its injustice, and its oppression will be exposed, judged and purified. We can clearly see this theme in the readings for this Sunday.
In the passage from the prophet Malachi we hear his prophecy of a day of universal judgment. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire.” He concludes his prophecy, however, with a word of hope. “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
In the gospel passage, Jesus was teaching in the temple and overheard people commenting on the beauty and opulence of the temple. He remarked, “All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” He then continued his teaching using language very similar to Malachi’s.
He cautioned his disciples not to be terrified when they heard of wars and insurrections because nations and kingdoms would inevitably rise against each other. There would be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place. There would even be mighty signs in the sky. In addition, another dynamic would be taking place as these events were unfolding. Jesus’
disciples would be seized and imprisoned. They would even be handed over by friends and relatives. They would be hated because of their association with him. Some of them would be put to death. But this would not be the end of the world.
Malachi’s prophecy recognized the darkness of the world we live in, but it also looked to a world purified of injustice and oppression, of war and violence. We Christians, always hopeful, anticipate “a new heaven and a new earth,” a world in harmony with God, a new Eden. However, this new world won’t be forced on us. There won’t be a great rapture during which bad people would be obliterated and good people rise into the heavens.
We Christians hold that the new world will come to life though our self-sacrifice – our living, not for ourselves, but for others. This is the central teaching of Jesus. He modeled this teaching when he washed his disciples feet. He modeled it when he took up the cross. He asked us to follow him. To do what he did. To live as he lived. To continue his mission.
The new world will reveal itself gradually through the loving and sacrificial lives of people like you and me – people who take to heart what Jesus taught and modeled in his own life. In spite of the dismal condition of our world today, we can’t lose hope. We must be devoted to the vision of a new world. We must, no matter what it will cost us, live our lives for others.
2 MACCABEES 7:1-2, 9-14 | 2 THESSALONIANS 2:16-3:5 | LUKE 20:27-28, 34-38
In all honesty, I completely understand if you think that this is a “who cares” gospel passage. Jesus and the Sadducees (whoever they are) are arguing with Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus finds a way to shut them up, and this makes the scribes (whoever they are) happy. Basta! Let’s move on to the next chapter. But I see an opportunity here to learn more about the world Jesus lived in and had to negotiate.
Also, what Jesus is teaching is pertinent today. I know quite a few Catholics who don’t believe in an afterlife. Think of the Catholic cultures that carry out lifelong mourning customs. A good example is the millions of widows who wear black for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t give testimony to a joyful afterlife with God. Let’s find out who the players are in this scene. Who are the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes?
The Pharisees weren’t a political party. They were content with any government that allowed them to carry on with their religious observances. When it came to doctrine, the Pharisees accepted all the scriptures, the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, and the writings of the prophets. They also accepted as doctrine the thousands of regulations and rules that had been passed on orally over the centuries. They held on dearly to the ceremonial laws such as the sabbath regulations and hand washings. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels and spirits. They hoped for the coming of a messiah who would begin a golden age for Israel.
The Sadducees were the rich aristocrats of the Jewish world. Many of them were also priests. To maintain their wealth and social status they collaborated with the Roman occupation. They rejected the thought of a coming Messiah because it would certainly have overturned their privileged life style. Religiously, they accepted as doctrine only the Law of Moses, not the prophets. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, no spirits and no angels.
The scribes were the professional lawyers. It was their
duty to know the scriptures – every chapter and verse, and memorized the oral tradition. They drafted legal documents such a marriage contracts, divorce decrees, loans, inheritances, mortgages and the sale of property. They literally copied the law, and during the time of the prophets also served as personal secretaries. If anyone had a question about the law, they asked a scribe for an answer. Philosophically, they tended to link themselves with the Pharisees.
In today’s gospel passage we see the Sadducees ganging up on Jesus, the latest messianic figure to appear in Israel. They brought up an outdated, and no longer practiced law, Deuteronomy 25: 5-6. “When brothers live together, and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family; but her husband’s brother shall go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, that his name not be blotted out from Israel.”
They contrived a situation in which seven brothers were forced to marry their deceased brother’s widow, but each of them died before providing the widow with a son. Their question, attacking the notion of an afterlife, asked which of all these brothers would be the widow’s official husband in heaven. The question was meant to be a mockery of the thought of afterlife, but Jesus decided to answer them. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.” He then backed up what he said with a reference to the book of Exodus (Ex 3:6) in which God identified himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for in him all are alive.” I hope that my short explanation of the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes will be helpful when you read the New Testament. It’s important to understand the religious and political tensions that surrounded Jesus. It helps us achieve a deeper insight into his teachings. Also, I encourage you to think about Jesus’ message to the Sadducees. What’s your understanding and beliefs regarding resurrection and afterlife? As we move through Fall, the Sunday liturgies give us many Gospel passages that encourage our reflection on death and afterlife. In today’s passage, Jesus said that we become children of God when we pass over. He also said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” But what do teachings like these mean to you, personally?
WISDOM 11:22-12-:2 | 2 THESSALONIANS 1:11-2:2 | LUKE 19:1-10
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the people of Jericho, and the many traders and merchants who pass through with their goods, because he’s the city’s tax collector. We’re told that he’s “a wealthy man,” which is a nice way of saying he’s an extortionist. Being a tax collector under the Roman occupation, he’s labeled a traitor and a thief, and is shunned by the city’s population.
Before we go on with the story, let’s get a better picture of this important town. Jericho lies about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It’s an ancient city going back as far as 9,000 BC. It’s an oasis and enjoys the title, “the city of palms.” Because of its mild weather and beautiful springs, it attracts the rich and powerful. Herod has a summer palace there, and many wealthy people from Jerusalem have villas there. It’s also important because the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jordan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the empire.
Because Jericho is home to the rich and famous, celebrity seekers and the curious tend to mill along the roads entering and leaving the city. Beggars line the roads, too. Jesus, on his approach to Jericho that day, met a blind man who begged him to restore his sight. “Jesus told him, ‘Have sight; your faith has saved you.’ He immediately received his sight and followed Jesus, giving glory to God.” This new follower is among the crowd when Jesus enters the city and meets up with Zacchaeus.
Here’s the picture. Jesus of Nazareth, a well know personality in the Jewish world, has just entered the city after curing a blind man. There’s a noisy and sizable crowd following him. Zacchaeus sees the crowd approaching, and wants to get a glimpse of Jesus. But being too short to see over the crowd, and probably being elbowed by people who wanted to keep him away, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to get a good view of the healer from Nazareth. Lo and behold, when Jesus comes to the sycamore he stops. He looks up. Seeing little Zacchaeus hanging on to the branches, he says the most remarkable thing:
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay in your home.”
People hate Zacchaeus. He’s lived a life of corruption. He’s wealthy, but so what. He’s an outcast to his own people. Only his fellow outcasts, sinners and tax collectors, socialize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to go to his home! From this moment on, Zacchaeus’ life will never be the same.
Immediately, the crowd begins to grumble because Jesus has invited himself to a sinner’s home, but little Zacchaeus stands up to them. Climbing down from the tree, he makes a public confession by announcing the amends he will make for his sins. “Behold, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I will repay it four-times over.” Without any hesitation Jesus gives him absolution. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” He then reasserts Zacchaeus into the community. He tells the crowd, “This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus follows this up with an important universal teaching. He announces to the crowd that, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
We mustn’t forget this teaching. Each of us, at one time or another, will find ourselves up a tree, in spiritual crisis. We might feel that we’re trapped in a life with no direction, no future. Asking God for help isn’t enough to change things. Sometimes we have to claim our part in creating the crisis, and we have to take aggressive steps to change. It’s never easy.
The blind man on the road to Jericho shouted out into the darkness that he wanted to see. Jesus heard him, recognized the depth of his faith, and announced his cure. Zacchaeus had extorted the merchants, and betrayed his people. The day Jesus came to town, his faith gave him the courage to publically confess his sins, and make amends to the community. By getting out on a limb, he was finally able to see Jesus. He took a chance, and Jesus entered his life that day.
The message for us is quite simple. Take a chance. Go out on a limb. It’s an important part of our spiritual lives. It can bring us healing. It can bring us a new life.
SIRACH 35:12-14, 16-18 | 2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8, 16-18 | LUKE 18:9-14
We’re continuing our reflection on prayer this week. Last week’s gospel passage was a teaching about the efficacy of stamina in prayer – never give up. In this week’s passage, Jesus spun another parable exposing a serious blockage to prayer’s efficacy. It’s about two men praying in the temple.
One was an ultra-orthodox Pharisee. The literal meaning of the word Pharisee is: “one who is separated.” The members of this religious sect saw themselves as separate from the rest of humanity because of the depth of their commitment to the minutiae of the law. This Pharisee’s commitment was impressive. He fasted twice a week. Jewish law prescribed only one obligatory fast day, Yom Kippur. He gave tithes on everything he owned. The law prescribed tithing only produce. The Pharisee’s prayer that day consisted of reminding God how he stood apart from the rest of humanity. He even looked with disgust at the tax collector who was praying near him. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”
The tax collector’s prayer was very different. He “would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner.’” In fact, a more accurate translation of the tax collector’s prayer would be: “O God, be merciful to me THE sinner.”
The Pharisee’s prayer boasted of his elevated status among other Jews because he fasted more often and more intensely, and because he tithed more lavishly than the ordinary people. The Pharisee wore his religion on his sleeve, and he was damn proud of himself! He wasn’t praying. He was boasting.
In the eyes of his fellow Jews, the tax collector was judged as a national traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. He most likely, as was all too common in Jesus’ day, extorted more than enough money to cover the tax to Rome. The extra money went into his pocket. Rome didn’t care as long as the taxes kept flowing in. His prayer came from a heart full of sorrow and contrition. He stood alone and naked before God – he was THE sinner. He gave no excuses. He simply stood before God in humility and sorrow.
The parable told us that the tax collector was justified; the Pharisee was not. In other words, the tax collector was healed – his spirit was redirected toward the divine life. The Pharisee left the temple bloated by his own self-importance and spiritual narcissism.
Jesus was teaching us that fruitful prayer must be honest prayer. We can not, and should not, ever compare our spiritual lives to others. When we pray, we need not hide anything from ourselves or God. When we pray openly and honestly, we expose our weaknesses, our strengths, our joys, our sorrows, our successes and our failures.
An open heart is the path to God, and God’s path to us. That’s what it means to be justified to take the life-long journey of spiritual healing.