The Humbled Be Exalted


We might chuckle at five-year-old Noah’s boast that he will grow up to be stronger than Daddy. Or cringe at sixteen-year-old Hannah’s bluster that she can text and drive with no problem. Or wonder at coworkers who brag about how deserving they are of a huge raise because they produce more than anyone else. Only time will tell if Noah, Hannah, or the coworkers actually reach what they tout. In any case, at the time of the self-praise what tends to run through our minds is that these people don’t know themselves very well. Life is about growing in self-knowledge. Prayer is the ingredient that brings honesty and accuracy to our self-knowledge.
Both the Pharisee and tax collector addressed God in prayer. The content of their prayer, however, differed greatly. The Pharisee’s prayer was about himself and was turned toward self; his prayer was about justifying himself. The tax collector’s prayer, by contrast, was turned toward God in the true self-knowledge of who he was. Jesus declared the tax collector justified, not the Pharisee. Jesus tells us that we are “justified” when we know who we are before God and open ourselves in humility to receive God’s mercy. Justification—right relationship with God—comes only from knowing ourselves as God knows us. The message Jesus teaches in this gospel is that justification comes not to those who consider themselves righteous, but to those who humbly acknowledge their need for God’s mercy. [Living Liturgy, 2013]
Let’s be honest: Sometimes when we pray we are like the Pharisee, and at other times we are like the tax collector. We are like the Pharisee when we presume we are in right relation with God and others and refuse to acknowledge truthfully our own failings and weaknesses. We are like the tax collector when we acknowledge who we really are and recognize our need for God’s mercy.
So both can teach us something. The Pharisee can teach us that religious practices are important, but not enough. They must always be performed with humility and with the goal of deepening our relationship with God. The tax collector can teach us that God doesn’t offer salvation to the perfect, but to those who acknowledge their sinfulness and cry out for God’s mercy. Like the tax collector, we must let God be God and receive the mercy offered. Though sinners, God exalts those who are in right relationship. Rather than focus unduly on our own sinfulness, we need to turn to God and ask for mercy.

Adapted from Renew International: Prayer Time Cycle C