Homily for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2010
There has been a lot of positive reaction to the canonisation of St Mary MacKillop last Sunday. Although there are some for whom the whole thing is a bit too much to get their heads around. One negative comment I read of ridiculed the Church for claiming that the miracles associated with Mary were proved scientifically to be caused by her prayers. Of course, the Church claims no such thing. Whereas, in fact, the scientific examination of claimed healing miracles is only to demonstrate that within current scientific knowledge, there was no explanation for the cure. The Church would further claim that, even if a natural reason was found for a cure in the future, it would not make it any less a miracle today! As far as canonisation is concerned the two miracles required are not the heart of the matter anyway. It is all about a lived faith and prayer. Miracles only confirm what is already believed about a person by people of faith. Mary MacKillop, like other saints, was acknowledged as significant in their prayer and their prophetic lives, by ordinary people long before their canonisation.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a brilliant teaching that the tax collector has the right attitude before God to pray. St Teresa of Avila, a mystic and great doctor of the Church, said of contemplative prayer, "Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us." You could not find a simpler nor more profound definition of prayer. I suppose both men in the parable are taking time to be alone with God. Though we would not call what they were doing contemplative prayer as such.
But the parable draws our attention to the vast difference between the two. The Pharisee was probably correct in his assessment of himself. Pharisees were in general good and devout people who observed the law well. Jesus' hearers would no doubt say that the Pharisee was a righteous man. But his words are not part of a conversation. His is a monologue in which he lists his accomplishments and compares himself better than other people. He leaves no room for God to enter the conversation. He does not need God. He is a self made man. By implication he is saying to God, "Look at me and what I have done." Give me what you owe me! His was not really prayer at all.
The tax collector would probably be seen by Jesus hearers in a favourable light. His self assessment could also be true although we do not know what his sins were. His prayer was a request of God for mercy realizing that he has not done anything to deserve it. In this episode once again we have Luke's theme of the reversal of fortunes in the Kingdom. The humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled. What was wrong with the Pharisee was not the things he did. They were good. But it was his approach to God. He really did not need God at all. He was self righteous. The tax collector on the other hand recognises his utter dependence on God and begs his mercy. Jesus goes on to say in the next paragraph that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, to the little ones.
So there is another angle to this story. The tax collector represents all the little people of the world that Luke is fond of bringing to centre stage; the poor, the sick, the outcasts. They are subject to the rules made by the powers that be, often put down and made to feel worthless. Even if he was not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer, the tax collector would still be seen as a sinner because of his occupation. But he may have had no choice in working for the Romans collecting their taxes. He may have had a family to look after. There are a great many people who find themselves trapped by situations they would rather not be in. We can so readily judge another person from a position of power and wealth. God does not work as we do. God can bring something new out of our apparent failures and shortcomings as God did with Mary MacKillop. It is people of faith who can see this and can see miracles.
It is the prayer of the tax collector that has become a source of a rich spirituality for Christians, not that of the Pharisee. "God, be merciful to me a sinner." That is a prayer of someone who knows he is loved and forgiven. It is not the prayer of one who just doing his duty fearing damnation. It is a prayer we can and should pray often. We can carry it with us wherever we go. It has found expression in all kinds of ways, for example, the Jesus prayer, that mantra from the Eastern Christian tradition, "Jesus, Son God, have mercy on me a sinner." It's spirit is captured by the Responsorial Psalm for the Feast of Mary MacKillop last week, "Into your hands, O Lord, I entrust my spirit." That is the prayer of Jesus himself on the cross. That is also the prayer of a Christian with or without miracles.