Let’s hear it for the humble tax collector!
While some might not put the word humble in the same sentence with the title “tax collector,” suffice it to say that Jesus did. And it is noteworthy that he did so because he got beyond the stereotype and simply loved the person. This is in direct contrast to the Pharisees who first labeled the individual and then judged him harshly. Jesus is teaching here that humility is the most effective attitude to have in prayer—humble like a tax collector who would enter the temple and pray, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” In praising the humble tax collector, Jesus exalts him.
Last week it was Moses holding up his hands on the mountain in time of battle (Exodus) and the widow pleading her cause before a judge (the Gospel) that Jesus held up for us as examples of how to pray, “without becoming weary.” This week it is the humble tax collector, who admits that he is a sinner who needs God’s mercy. [I will forego here making reference to the IRS. I made that mistake once before. Let me be clear: all the IRS workers in St. Rita Parish are the good humble ones! –but I digress.] Jesus points out by contrast that the Pharisees are all wrapped up in themselves, egotistically bragging about their own righteousness before God—proclaiming their self-righteousness. This becomes for them a block to the movement of grace and conversion. On the other hand, humility provides capacity for grace and renders a person ready for conversion.
Reflecting, then, on persons whose prayers are heard, consider the list provided today in the reading from The Book of Sirach: the weak, the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, and the lowly. To these, interestingly, the writer points out that the “God of justice knows no favorites” and is “not unduly partial.” So the list is not exclusive; it simply underscores that the humble will get a quicker hearing.
Even in the Holy Eucharist that we celebrate together today, Jesus is modeling excellent—perfect—prayer. He looks up to his heavenly Father and gives thanks; he uses simple bread and common wine; at the same meal he washes the feet of his disciples; and to all he says, “Do THIS in memory of me.” After all, what’s not humble about the last supper or, for that matter, about later praying on a rock in the garden of Gethsemane?” Jesus models for us the ultimate in humble prayer and thereby receives the grace to accomplish forgiveness for all of our sins and the opening of the gates of heaven. Perhaps the best starter prayer for all of us is, “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like yours”–a humble heart so that my prayers may be like yours.