This week’s Gospel is sandwiched by two wonderful teachings on faith that round out the themes brought up in the Gospel itself. Prior to the Gospel is Jesus’ teaching on prayer, using the parable of the persistent widow. After the Gospel is Jesus’ blessing of the little children, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”
In both the persistent widow and the child, you see foreshadows and echoes of the publican who raises not his head. The persistent widow is persistent because she has no resources of her own to defeat her enemies. The child shows how to enter the kingdom of God because more than anyone he recognizes his dependency on a parent. The publican too went to church recognizing his absolute dependency and spiritual poverty in the face of his enemy, which in his case, was sin.
Not so the Pharisee. “I” drives his entire prayer. “I” is the subject of a prayer with a lot of action verbs. By contrast the Publican’s first person reference is a passive “me.” He’s the one acted on, not the one doing the action.
But lets look at the Pharisee some more. He’s a sneaky one. Because if you look, he’s quite grateful. He has a God-directed piety. He begins his prayer, after all, saying, “God, I thank you.” He has a doctrine of grace, for you don’t thank God for things if you don’t believe He’s giving you something.
What was his doctrine of grace? It’s what he thanked God for. God had enabled him, empowered him, strengthened him to be better than others. God had infused him with the grace to be a cut above the rest, to tithe and to fast. Today he might say, “I give God all the glory for all the blessings in my life. God has been good to me. I’m still married to my wife. I have a good job. I don’t have any major problems with my children. I see others and all their problems, but by God’s grace I’ve been spared that!”
This is not the example Jesus gives here. Widows, sinners, children. Spiritually poor. These are they who live at the zero point. The one who would go home justified will find that log in his eye, and fall to his knees, beating his breast, seeking the Lord’s mercy. There is not a day goes by that we don’t need God’s mercy.
Jesus warns against “trusting in yourself” that we are righteous. He also gives as an example a subtle way we can “trust in ourselves” that we are righteous, even as we mask it in piety. The good example is the one who beats himself, beats his breast. In some traditions, the Roman Catholic especially but in others, there is a beating of the breast during public confession, three times. It’s a good reminder.
It’s not those “enabled” or “empowered” to be good who are righteous, who can thank God for how good they are, but those at the zero point, who cannot lift up their eyes to heaven. These are the ones who go home justified, or, who are declared righteous by our Lord.