Warning Against Worshipping an Imaginary God and the Prayer of Pride

User’s Guide to Sunday, Oct. 27

John Everett Millais, The Pharisee and the Publican
John Everett Millais, The Pharisee and the Publican (photo: Public domain)

Sunday, Oct. 27, is the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C). Mass readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14.

In last week’s Gospel, Luke presented us with a story on persistence in prayer. This week, he gives a lesson on the quality of our prayer with the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple. The tax collector, believed by his own people to be a betrayer and a thief who collected money for the Romans and lined his own pockets with the leftovers, prays in the back with sincere repentance, begging for mercy. The Pharisee, in contrast, takes his place in the front, disdainfully aware of the man behind him. He begins to pray a strange sort of prayer “to himself,” thanking God that he is not “like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even,” with a sideways glance, “like this tax collector.”

In reality, the sin of the Pharisee was greater than all of the above. His sin was the seedbed of all other sin. His sin was the sin of Satan: pride.

 “As long as you are proud, you cannot know God,” C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity. “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: And, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something above you.”

Then Lewis answers the “terrible question” we might have — how is it that the Pharisee spoke a prayer to himself?  Have not both these men come to the same temple to worship the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

“How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of pride towards their fellow men.”

What the Pharisee cannot see is that beneath the bowed head of the tax collector rises a prayer from his heart, a short but powerful prayer, which, because he is humble, “pierces the clouds,” in the words of the reading from Sirach.

True humility is to know our stature before God and to pray accordingly: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth,” we pray in the Psalm. “To him be glory forever and ever,” adds St. Paul in his Letter to Timothy, recognizing that his own accomplishments were not won because of his merit, but that it was God who “stood by me and gave me strength.”

Let us embrace the prayer of the tax collector, a prayer which, with the added power of the name of Jesus, has become a beloved way of praying without ceasing: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Claire Dwyer is editor of SpiritualDirection.com and coordinates adult faith formation at her parish in Phoenix, where she lives with her husband and their six children.