Last Sunday we were saying that the Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions three parables on prayer from Luke’s gospel, showing for each of them its main point: persistence in prayer for the parable of the importunate friend; patience of faith for the parable of the importunate widow; and humility of heart for the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, which we have just read. So, one of the conditions for being heard in prayer is to be humble. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds,” says the book of Sirach. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” we have repeated in the responsorial Psalm. Instead, God does not listen to the prayer of the Pharisee, even because it is not a real prayer. I do not know if you have noticed what the gospel says: “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself.” Even though his prayer begins with the invocation of God, in reality he is speaking to himself; he does not need God. Actually, he asks him for nothing; he just thanks him for all his virtues, comparing himself to sinners, who do not possess those virtues. It is true that gratitude should always be present in our prayer: we saw that in the story of the healing of the ten lepers two weeks ago. But thankfulness should never be separated from the humble request for God’s help, because only in this way we can show our real condition of people begging for mercy.
I would like to clear the ground from a possible misunderstanding. The Pharisee is not to blame for his hypocrisy. We should not think that what he says in his prayer is false. Everything he says is true: he is a righteous man according to the law. In the same way, we should not think that the humility of the tax collector consists in saying something untrue. When he says: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” it is not a pretense. He is a sinner indeed. Both of them—the Pharisee and the tax collector—are sincere in their respective prayers. So, if they are both sincere; if they both honestly acknowledge their real condition, why on earth one of them—the tax collector—went home justified, and the other one—the Pharisee—did not?
We find the answer to this question at the beginning of the gospel. As in other occasions (last Sunday the same happened), Luke prefaces Jesus’ parables with a short explanation of them. In this case, we read: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” In my opinion, it is not an accurate translation, because it prevents us from grasping the reason why the Pharisee was not justified, unlike the tax collector. A literal translation of the original text could be: “Jesus addressed this parable to some who trusted in themselves, because they were righteous and despised others.” As we were saying, the Pharisee was really righteous, and precisely for that reason he trusted in himself, rather than in God. This is his sin: the lack of faith in God. He does not need God; he does not need to be justified by him, because he is already just. On the contrary, the tax collector, since he is really a sinner and humbly acknowledges his condition, cannot trust in himself, but puts all his confidence in God. Since he is not just, he is to be justified by God.
As you can see, these parables, before being on prayer, are first on faith. It is not prayer that justifies, but faith. Prayer is just the expression of our faith. Last Sunday we said: no faith, no prayer. Through prayer we show the depth of our faith. A humble prayer shows the humility of our faith. Humility is the main condition for faith. Today we could say: no humility, no faith. Only the one who is really humble can believe. The one who is full of himself and trusts in himself, does not believe in God, even if he has the name of God on his lips. Only the one who recognizes himself as a sinner knows that he cannot rely on himself, but needs to turn to somebody else greater than him to become righteous. His faith cries out for help: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And so, by his humble faith (fides humilis), he gets salvation.
PS: In order to examine closely the question of the translation of the parable’s introduction, it could be profitable to read the post of October 27, 2013 (in Italian).