Liturgical Colour : Green
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this Sunday we listened to the words of the Scripture that are reminding us of what it means to be truly faithful to God. To be faithful to God means to be wholehearted in our commitment and dedication to Him, to centre our attention and focus to God and to have a good and healthy relationship with Him at each and every moments of our lives.
This is presented most clearly in our Gospel passage today where the Lord Jesus spoke to His disciples and to the people on the story of two people who were praying to God in the Temple. He mentioned the prayers of a Pharisee and a tax collector and described the way they prayed at the Temple. While it was not necessary that all the Pharisees and the tax collectors behaved or prayed in that way, the Lord wanted to highlight the widespread bias and prejudice existing at that time.
The Pharisees were seen as a great, intellectual and honourable group of people who were dedicated to the preservation as well as the implementation of the Jewish laws and customs as handed down from generations to generations from the time of Moses. They were influential and powerful, supported by the Temple and by the chief priests and elders, respected for their knowledge of the Scriptures and for their piety.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum were the tax collectors, who together with the lepers, prostitutes and criminals were treated as the lowest and most despicable members of the community. And some, especially among the Pharisees did not even treat them as proper members of the community, but as outcasts and even as supposed pagans and wicked people unworthy of God.
And the tax collectors were despised and treated badly because of their profession in collecting taxes for the king and especially for the Romans, who were the overlords and rulers of the land at that time. First of all, no one ever liked to be taxed of their income, as the history of man has proven again and again. Whenever taxes were levied or increased, often the people rose up in rebellions or became angry.
Unfortunately, the anger and the unhappiness of the people were then often directed at those who collected the taxes as part of their livelihood rather than those who received the collected taxes. It was most convenient to despise the tax collectors as they were the ones at the frontline doing the work of getting the taxes from the people while the Romans were essentially untouchable.
That was the likely reason why the tax collectors received the brunt of the anger and displeasure of the people who treated them as traitors to the nation, as those whom they alleged to have sold the people to the Romans. These were certainly the prejudices and biases that were rampant in the community of the Israelites at that time, and to many if not most of the Pharisees in particular, the tax collectors were seen as unclean, unworthy and sinful people.
That prejudice was clearly seen in the story that Jesus told His disciples, as the Pharisee in the story looked down upon the tax collector and mentioned it openly in his prayer to God, as he looked highly on his own pious faith practices and despised the tax collector as a sinful man. Certainly that was the same attitude shared by many of the Pharisees in real life as listed throughout many parts of the Gospels.
The Pharisee however did not realise that God actually looked with favour on the tax collector, and the prayer of the tax collector was heard because he humbled himself so completely, recognising that he was a sinner not just because the other people said so, but he was aware of his own sins and unworthiness before God. And while the Pharisee held his head up high and praised himself in the prayers he made, the tax collector humbled himself so much and was so ashamed at his sins, that he dared not even to look up and bowed down right far back away from the presence of God.
Comparing the two prayers, both in the words and in the methods, we certainly should know between the Pharisee and the tax collector, who was the one whose prayer was more genuine and true, and whose attention and focus were on the Lord and whose one was on himself. The Pharisee prayed with pride and praised himself before God while actually demeaning someone else, but he was oblivious and failed to notice the sins in his own self. And that was not what a true prayer and what a Christian should behave like.
For prayer in its essence is based on the close and intimate relationship between us and God, and is a form of communication between us and Him. And as how all communications are, prayer is supposed to be two-directional, meaning that a prayer is a means for us to be able to speak to God, but also at the same time, for God to speak to us in our hearts and in our minds.
The Pharisee closed his heart and his mind before he even began to communicate with God. He was so full of pride and arrogance in himself and in his intelligence, piety and status that he did not even allow God to enter into His heart or speak in Him. As he was praising himself and looked down on the tax collector, it showed that he loved himself more than anything or anyone else, even God.
Compare this to the tax collector who bowed himself down, consciously humiliating himself probably in the plain sight of the public. He did not even dare to look up to God, knowing the sins he had committed, reinforced by being ostracised by the community, considered and treated as traitors and as despicable people. He humbled himself such that he emptied himself from all pride and desire, and focused himself entirely to God.
And that was how someone can open himself or herself to God for true communication to be made. Too often in our lives we are too busy and too distracted to realise God wanting to speak to us in our hearts and minds. We must realise that God has always wanted to speak with us and to hear us, just as the prophet Sirach in our first reading today mentioned, that the prayer of a humble person pierces even the clouds of heaven.’
A lot of times in life, we are making too many expectations and having too many desires while succumbing to those tempting desires at the same time. That is how we end up distancing ourselves from God and failing to realise His love for us. Whenever we got caught up by being too busy in life, thinking too highly of ourselves like the Pharisee, we end up sidelining God and shutting ourselves from Him.
Today, as we heard and remembered the passages from the Scriptures, let us all discern and reflect on our own lives, on how we have lived them and how we have been faithful or even unfaithful to God, on whether we have had a good and loving relationship with Him, or whether we are too busy, too distracted or too proud and full of ourselves that we have sidelined him and being too focused on ourselves.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, are we able to open ourselves to God, to His sincere love, His generous mercy and forgiveness, His kindness and compassion to us, His willingness to be reconciled with us despite our sinfulness, our many wicked actions and our stubbornness all these while? Are we willing to embrace Him wholeheartedly and sincerely from now on, humbled knowing just how much He loves us regardless of our imperfections and flaws?
Let us be like the tax collector, who came to God baring himself and humbling himself, and coming to God wanting to be forgiven and to embrace Him fully with love. Let us all waste no more time and seek Him in prayers, prayers that truly came from our hearts and not just from our mouths. Let us all seek Him with all of our heart, sparing no effort to become ever closer to Him. Come to Him and receive the fullness of His wonderful love. May God be with us always. Amen.