by Father Mike Stubbs
When I pray, I frequently find it useful to look at the tabernacle, a crucifix or a statue. It helps to focus my thoughts and keep my mind from wandering. It is too easy for distractions to enter in and take me away from my prayer.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 18:9-14, we overhear a Pharisee praying in the temple area. As he prays, he notices a tax collector who is standing off at a distance: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.”
The Pharisee is not focusing. He is paying too much attention to others and criticizing them, like this poor tax collector. In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector is not paying attention to anyone except himself and his needs before God. He prays to God for forgiveness: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The tax collector and the Pharisee agree on one thing: that the tax collector is a sinner. Otherwise, the two are totally opposite. They illustrate the saying which immediately follows the parable: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This saying of Jesus has already appeared previously in Lk 14:11. It also occurs in Mt 23:12, once again in connection with criticism of the Pharisees. The saying of Jesus echoes 1 Sm 2:7: “The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he humbles, he also exalts.”
These words come from a hymn attributed to Hannah, who praises God for a reversal of fortunes: “The bows of the mighty are broken, while the tottering gird on strength. The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry batten on spoil” (1 Sm 2: 4-5a).
In her praise of God, Hannah anticipates the Magnificat, Our Lady’s hymn of praise in Lk 1:46-55. In fact, throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see an emphasis upon God’s turning the world upside down. With that in mind, we can complete the thought expressed in Jesus’ saying and supply the agent: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled by God, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted by God.”
While the tax collector presents us with a notable example of humility, it pales in comparison to the example of humility which comes from Jesus Christ:
“He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross! Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every other name” (Phil 2: 8-9).
Now, that’s humility.