From today’s Gospel: Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else (Lk 18:9).
Today’s highly provocative Gospel was addressed to those who considered themselves to be in such an exalted place in society and their relationship to God, that they actually despised everyone else. I assume that means they also despised their peers, who also considered themselves in an exalted way. Somehow, I had always missed this fact—that it was to these people that Jesus was addressing the parable.
Why does that matter?
Because I thought the parable was addressed to me, I had always assumed that the tax collector was praying the right way, the way that I was supposed to pray. There have been times in my life that I have prayed like the tax collector, and that was appropriate. But mostly when I went to the Lord and started looking over all my sins, I got myself into trouble. I didn’t want to raise my eyes to the Lord, did not want to look into his face, couldn’t bear to hear anything he had to say. I was looking at myself, not at the Lord. And that’s a problem. I ended up in a worse state than when I started. At one point I spoke with a mentor about this – that I was so unworthy, that it made me so depressed, that I did not see how I could have a relationship with the Lord. “Of course, you can’t,” she told me. “You have to stop praying like the tax collector. You can’t get better by putting your focus on yourself. You have to turn your face toward Jesus and keep your eyes, your mind, and your heart on him. His Holy Spirit can transform you. You can’t transform yourself.” What freedom that gave me!
As I matured in my Christian walk, I gradually realized that prayer is a conversation with a friend – that it is about a relationship – a relationship with the Father, his Son, Jesus, through and with the help of the Holy Spirit. When I sit down to pray, I am in the presence of someone who loves me unconditionally. That should not make me feel bad about myself, that should make me feel loved – a daughter of the king. Am I unworthy? Yes, absolutely. Does that matter? Apparently not. For some strange reason (strange to me), Jesus took my sins upon himself, and from his heart of perfect love, he is transforming me and making me whole. All I have to do is repent of my sins and say “yes” to his transforming love. That’s all any of us have to do.
So maybe I started this journey like the tax collector who couldn’t raise his eyes to heaven, but that’s not how I have spent all my days. I hope that the tax collectors in Jesus’ time learned that they, too, didn’t have to stay in abjectness – that Jesus also came to set them free to live as glorious sons of the king.