The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter

Saturday of the 3rd Week of Lent

Hosea 6:1-6; Luke 18:9-14

When we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we are rightly drawn to the differences between them. However, I think time is well spent thinking not only about the differences but also the similarities, and what both have to teach us about ourselves and our prayer life, which is the reason Jesus taught this parable to begin with.

The fact is, the two men have some important things in common. First, they’re both truthful. The Pharisee is telling the truth when he says he isn’t greedy, dishonest, or adulterous; so is the tax collector when he calls himself a sinner. Second, their actions are pious. The Pharisee tithes and fasts, while the tax collector stands at a distance, keeps his eyes lowered, and beats his breast as he prays. Third, both are men of deep conviction; they speak to God straight from the heart.

Speaking to God from the heart is key, for Scripture teaches us that prayer is a work of the heart. The heart is where we live, our inner Temple, the place to which we withdraw (CCC 2563). At the same time, it is the place God knows best; he looks at the heart and knows its secrets (1 Samuel 16:7; Psalm 44:21). If we are righteous in God’s eyes, our prayers are fruitful (James 5:16); if not, our prayers are in vain (CCC 2562).

This brings us back to the Pharisee. Although he seems to be speaking to God, his words betray a heart turned inward. Our Lord may be hinting as much when he says the man spoke this prayer to himself (18:11), but even if not, one thing is clear: God is the audience of his prayer, not the object. It’s tempting to think that we never do this, but my guess is that in the quiet of our own inner Temple, we can all recall times when we’ve focused a little too much on ourselves, have resisted what God is asking, acted as if the good things we’ve done we did on our own, or that in some way God likes us just a little bit more than he does some other people – especially people we don’t like.

That’s the real problem. The Pharisee is right to say that he is not like the rest of humanity, but wrong because he’s comparing his behavior with what other people do, not with what God expects. The same is true for us; our standard is not other people, it is Christ. Given that, we can understand why God would say through Hosea, Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away (6:5). Fasting, tithing, coming to the Temple: All are false piety if they don’t come from a truly humble heart.

Humility, the foundation of all prayer, helps us to recognize our dependence on God and to appreciate our place in His plan. It is the virtuous balance between the extremes of pride on the one side and self-abjection on the other, which happens when we fail to recognize and use the gifts God has given us.

As our Lord pointed out, humility was the great virtue of the tax collector. We know it from his posture and his words: Be merciful to me a sinner. What we do not know is what happened next. Did he live that humility out in his daily life by doing what the Baptist advised, Stop collecting more than what is prescribed (John 3:13)? While we must not push the parable beyond its limits, we must remember that humility not only orients us to God, but to each other as well. As with the Pharisee, it’s tempting think that we already live humbly in the world, but we must ask ourselves: Do we ever dwell on other peoples’ faults, gossip about them, seek their admiration, or return insult for insult?

Like the Pharisee, this is the problem. True humility urges us to remember that God’s loving plan extends to all of humanity. We cannot live equitably with other people unless we treat them like equals, and we certainly cannot pray, no matter how humbly, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” if we refuse to be merciful to those who sin against us.

Through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, our Lord teaches us two lessons about prayer: First, the foundation of prayer is not our honesty, piety, or sincerity, but a contrite and humbled heart (Psalm 51:19). Second, the fruit of righteous prayer is a life of virtue most perfectly found in the life of Jesus, who took the form of a slave, humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-9). Indeed, no man so humbled was ever so greatly exalted.

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