Gospel of 21 March 2020
The tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home justified.
Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’
The most common way of looking at this parable is to compare the humility of the tax collector with the arrogance of the Pharisee, and most of us would feel relieved that we stand on the side of the poor tax collector and are thus in a right relationship with God. Little do we realise that we may be more in the mold of the Pharisee.
God answering our prayer is always a privilege accorded to us, a favour, a free gift granted to those who don’t deserve it. We can’t earn God’s favour because we actually can’t take credit for anything at all – everything we possess, every achievement of ours, every good deed done or devotion offered belongs to God in the first place.
And here’s the irony. The privilege we experience should motivate prayer, but too often privilege morphs into its sinister twin. Instead of enjoying privileges, we become entitled. Like spoiled children, we start to assume these blessings belong to us by right, and even worse, that we deserve them. Forgotten is our dependence on God. Even though everything we have comes from God, we march around with bloated heads, boasting of our achievements, pretending that we are self-made and independent.
One sure sign that we treat everything as an entitlement instead of a blessing —is a lack of gratitude. The lack of gratitude is a sign of feeling privileged. Ingratitude exposes an attitude of entitlement. How often do we acknowledge God’s graces? How often do we say thank-you to Him and others? In fact, we are more likely to complain when those privileges are withdrawn. The man who seldom comes for Mass, even on a Sunday, and even less frequent for confession may well throw a royal tantrum when he hears that the Church has suspended both. “How dare the bishop do this?” (Or when the live-streaming feed is down)
This is the painful truth – Entitlement keeps us from praying because true prayer is the overflow of gratitude and desperation. Since entitlement strangles gratitude and ignores need, it leads to the death of prayer. Why pray if I have everything I need? Why pray if everything I want is provided for me? This was the problem of the Pharisee. He wasn’t praying to God. He was addressing his prayer to himself in a self-congratulatory way. On the other hand, the tax collector who acknowledged his own depraved sinfulness, understood his need for God’s mercy.
One way God wakes us up to our ingratitude is through difficulties and suffering. Difficulties and suffering often lead to renewed prayer in a Christian’s life because they expose our needs. Wondering if you’ll have a roof over your head tonight and a job at the end of the year tends to chase away feelings of entitlement. Worried over the future of our country and the world in the aftermath of this pandemic, if there is a future to speak about, makes us start thinking that we aren’t that special after all – everyone is in this – young and old, rich and poor, from New York to Paris. God will bring difficulty into our lives so that we will see our need and pray.
But we do not have to wait until difficulties come to deal with entitlement. When we spray gratitude on the weeds of entitlement, they shrivel up and die. Not only does gratitude kill entitlement, but it also nourishes the soul, supplying nutrients necessary to see prayer blossom and grow. Gratitude to God leads to intercession for others. Thanking God for blessings leads to asking God to meet needs.
If gratitude is one of the keys that unlocks the door of prayer, then we must get serious about gratitude. We have a fabulous opportunity to this during this virtual lockdown and quarantine of our entire nation. Don’t let this time be wasted on sulking and ranting. Let’s start praying.
So if you are wondering what to do during the next two weeks or beyond, just sit down each morning to write a thank-you note, reasons to thank God. Write down one person’s name and why you’re thankful for them. Instead of just trolling the internet to distract yourself with more depressing news and people’s ranting, send notes of encouragement to others, send little thank you notes using social media and be an apostle off hope and gratitude, even though you can’t leave the confines of your house. The more serious you are about gratitude, the more likely you’ll become consistent in prayer. And instead of feeling grumpy, depressed or entitled, turn to the Lord like the tax collector and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”