In the life of the body a man is sometimes sick, and unless he takes medicine, he will die. Even so in the spiritual life a man is sick on account of sin. For that reason he needs medicine so that he may be restored to health; and this grace is bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance. - St. Thomas Aquinas
Gospel text (LK 18,9-14): Jesus told another parable to some persons fully convinced of their own righteousness, who looked down on others: «Two men went up to the Temple to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and said: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people, grasping, crooked, adulterous, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give the tenth of all my income to the Temple’. In the meantime the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. I tell you, when this man went down to his house, he had been set right with God, but not the other. For whoever makes himself out to be great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be raised».
The Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading was harboring two illusions: one, that he had no sin and, the other, that his religious acts alone earned him God’s favor. Here was a man who trusted in himself quite a bit—even to the point of praying “to himself” (Luke 18:11).
On the other end of the spectrum was the tax collector. This fellow had no illusions about himself. He knew that he didn’t measure up. He didn’t claim to be holy. He realized how needy he was, and so he pleaded with God, “Be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
What was lacking in the Pharisee’s prayer? Humility, recognition of his need, and repentance made up the whole of the tax collector’s plea.
Jesus doesn’t lead us to believe that the Pharisee is not telling the truth when he says that he is not «grasping, crooked, adulterous» (Lk 18:11) and that he fasts and gives money to the Temple, nor that the tax-collector is delusional in thinking himself a sinner. This is not the question. Rather it is that «the Pharisee no longer knows that he too has guilt. He has a completely clear conscience. But this silence of conscience makes him impenetrable to God and men, while the cry of conscience which plagues the tax collector makes him capable of truth and love. Jesus can move sinners» (Benedict XVI).
We are getting close to Holy Week. Soon we shall contemplate —once more!— Christ on the Cross:
There, we shall see how, before Dimas' (the good thief next to Jesus on the cross) ) pleading —«Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom» (Lk 23:42)— the Lord responds with a “sudden canonization” without any precedent: «I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise» (Lk 23:43). That person was a murderer who, before dying, was finally canonized by the very same Christ. For us this is a consolation.
Sanctity is not “manufactured” by us, but granted by God, if He finds our heart to be humble and converted.
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