Bill Moyers, who currently hosts “Bill Moyers and Company” on PBS as many of you know, was President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary in the 1960’s. One morning, the President asked Mr. Moyers to begin a breakfast meeting with a prayer. Mr. Moyers had just begun his prayer when President Johnson said, “Louder, Bill, louder, I can’t hear you” – and without raising his head, Moyers replied, “I’m not talking to you, Mr. President!”
And Mr. Moyers was right. When we pray, we are not giving a speech or seeking to impress. As we learned years ago in the Baltimore Catechism, “Prayer is the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God, to adore Him, to thank Him for his benefits, to ask His forgiveness, and to beg of Him all the graces we need, whether for soul or body.” (#3, Q. 1099) That definition was validated in today’s Gospel where Jesus rejected the boastful prayer of the Pharisee and endorsed the humble, penitent prayer of the tax collector.
Let us linger over Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee & the tax collector for a moment. What does this parable have to say to those of you who spend your waking hours in the practice of law and the administration of justice? Do these two characters, so masterfully depicted by our Savior, have anything to say to us – not only about the quality of our prayer – but also about the fulfillment of the daily responsibilities of bench and bar?
Who Were the Pharisees and the Tax Collectors?
In order to answer that question, we need to remind ourselves of the role of Pharisees and tax collectors in biblical times. Perhaps the first thing to say is that they were public people. In very different ways, each played a played a prominent role in society and for different reasons, people paid attention to them.
Pharisees were not priests but, as we would say, they were ‘laymen’. They were often leaders of their local synagogues and business people. In contrast to the Sadducees, they were not aristocratic but rather tended to constitute a sort of ‘middle class’ in Jewish society. They also belonged to a party or a movement in Judaism that looked for a Messiah who would free Israel from its Roman conquerors. The Pharisees firmly believed that Judaism needed to resist being assimilated into the dominate culture of the day, the Greek or Hellenic culture, that was spread far and wide during the height of the Roman Empire. Accordingly, the Pharisees were skilled in the Jewish law and they sought to observe it scrupulously. And here the word “law” includes not only the Ten Commandments but also an extensive and detailed legal code that regulated almost every aspect of daily life.
Although Jesus encountered Pharisees, such as Nicodemus, who sought the truth, mostly his relationship with the Scribes and the Pharisees was rocky. Again and again, Jesus pointed out to them that there is no salvation in the mere external observance of the law without an interior conversation and purification of mind and heart. So, the Pharisee boastfully praying in the Temple is Exhibit A. He went to the Temple to justify himself before God. The Pharisee treated the all-knowing God to a catalogue of his good works: he fasted; he contributed generously to the Temple and his synagogue; he was not greedy, dishonest, or adulterous and he added pointedly, that he was better than other people, including the tax collector in the back pew.
Jesus does not tell us that the Pharisee was lying before God. What was wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer was this: he did not acknowledge God as the source of justice and mercy but instead claimed that he, the Pharisee, was the source of his justice; in a word, the Pharisee thought he could justify himself by his own good actions without truly appealing to a higher law and a higher tribunal. And on this Pharisee’s scales of justice, there was no room for mercy for other people, nor was any weight given to the poor and the sick, the foreigner or the defenseless. To echo St. Paul, instead of boasting in God, the Pharisee boasted in himself, and thus was not open to discovering the presence of the Messiah, the Christ, “who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
What is the upshot of this for us? How we pray say a great deal about our overall stance before the living God. It says a great deal about how we go about fulfilling our daily responsibilities. In contrast to the Pharisee, do we think that the law which we administer participates in a higher law, in the law of God, the source of justice? This indeed is what the Church continually teaches us and this indeed is what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. bore witness to in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail in which he asked this question: “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law (he said) is a man-made code that squares with the law of God. An unjust law is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas (he continued), ‘an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.’” – thus wrote the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. So when we pray about our daily decisions, both professional and personal, especially those pertaining to the practice of law, how important that we recognize our dependence upon God as the source of our rights, dignity, and freedom – and that we work to craft even our positive laws to reflect something of the truth, coherence, goodness, and beauty of God’s eternal law, especially in the care we extend to the most vulnerable members of society. As our reading from the Book of Sirach says so clearly, “The Lord is a God of justice who knows no favorites … ” (Sir. 35:12).
The Tax Collector
All of which leads us to spend a little time with the tax collector in the back pew. Unlike the Pharisee who took up a position of prominence in the Temple area, the tax collector stood off in a distance, bowed his head, a prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Far from trying to justify himself or to revel in his own personal system of justice, the tax collector took the lowest place and humbly offered God only his sinfulness.
Who was the tax collector?
To repeat, he was a public figure, indeed, a ‘publican’. Like the Pharisees, tax collectors appear often in the Gospels but unlike the Pharisees, tax collectors were thought to be un-religious. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus instructed his disciples that if an errant brother refuses to listen to the correction of the Church he should be treated ‘as a Gentile or a tax collector’ (cf. Mt. 18:17). Because tax collectors were fellow Jews who worked for the Roman Empire, collecting money from the Jewish community to support the Roman occupiers while making a handsome profit in the process, they were deemed akin to pagans, to non-believers. They were considered traitors and transgressors of God’s law. Compared to the tax collectors of Jesus’ day, I guess the IRS comes off pretty well!
Yet, in spite of his apparent disregard for God’s law and his public sinfulness, it is the tax collector who utters the authentic prayer. What was the difference between the prayer of the tax collector and that of Pharisee? The answer is this: somehow, some way, the grace of God reached his soul. But how did that come to pass?
Writing to the Romans, St. Paul tells us that even unbelievers have no excuse for not knowing God and his attributes; St. Paul even spoke about an interior law written on the heart of each person without exception. That interior law, or natural law, expresses an inherent, if limited, openness to God that is part of the “standard equipment” of each person and fundamental to human dignity – for as St. Augustine declared before God: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Thus was the publican, the tax collector, drawn to the Temple. Thus he communicated with God better than the Pharisee, the expert in the law. His humble prayer “pierced the clouds” as the Book of Sirach says, and prompted ‘the Most High God to judge justly and to affirm the right’ (Sir. 35:18).
It is obvious that we should pray more like the tax collector than the Pharisee. But less obvious are the implications of how we pray. The tax collector reinforces the lesson that how we pray indicates the stance of our entire lives, personal and professional, before the living God. The tax collector also teaches us what the Pharisee could not – viz., – that our personal lives and our communities are held together not merely on the basis on the external observance of the law but rather by adherence to truths and values and the development of virtues, not so that we might become smug like the Pharisee, but rather so that we might develop a realistic sense of our dependence on God, summed up by the motto: “In God we trust!”
In this Red Mass we seek the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us all but especially upon those of you who involved with the law. It is a moment when the Church recognizes the vital importance of your daily work for human dignity and flourishing for the common good of society. It is a moment for us to ask the Holy Spirit to help us pray – for it is only in the Holy Spirit that we can say, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
When we open our hearts to Christ and allow His Word to resonate in our hearts, then we can be assured that we will be helped to pray as we ought and be a source of justice and a force for good in the communities that we serve.
May God bless us and keep us always in His love!