Who am I? Who am I to think that I can encourage people to follow Jesus when I sin and fall short? And how is it that I make the bold claim that I am a member of the Order of Preachers? It creates a little pressure to belong to an order dedicated to preaching. There are many times when I preach that I am thinking to myself that I fall so short in what I am encouraging others to do. So, who am I to think that I should be preaching?
The reality is that I am not worthy. No one is. (Well, maybe Jesus and the Blessed Mother.) What is the crucial challenge is to remember that I am not worthy. Today’s gospel tells the story of a Pharisee, a religious leader, and a tax collector, the hated person looking to be forgiven by God. The strategies they use in prayer are important lessons for us. Notice how many times in the prayer by the Pharisee he begins with “I” and by telling God all of the reasons that he is not like the rest of humanity. “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’” I am so wonderful he is telling God. Look at my amazing life.
The tax collector, who may very well have committed a great number of public sins is quite different. He cannot raise his eyes to God because he knows what he has done. He is in deep need of mercy he understands he is asking for something he does not deserve. He puts his faith in God’s mercy.
When we stand before God in prayer, the idea is often not to tell God anything. As Saint Matthew tells us, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” We go before God knowing that while we do not deserve to be forgiven we need to place our faith in the love of God. That is the important thing to remember. We are loved by God more than we can possibly know or understand. Even during those moments when we may feel we cannot lift our eyes to look to heaven we can place our faith and trust in the love that God has for us.
“But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” When we can admit to God that we are sinners we receive the freedom of the children of God. We can find our hearts opened to receive that powerful mercy God so desperately wants us to receive.
And it is only because of God’s mercy that it is possible for me to preach. In fact, understanding this, every Dominican seeking to belong to the Order of Preachers is first asked a question. “What do you seek?” says the one receiving our promises. Our response is a statement of faith, of a recognition of a lack of personal worthiness, for we say this: “God’s mercy and yours.” We can only speak to others out of our brokenness and unworthiness. And so it is never the case that I can stand before the people of God, or my students, or anyone else for that matter, it is never the case I can state I am worthy to say what I say. If I ever forget that more than anything I am desperately in need of God’s forgiveness, then I have become the Pharisee, the fraud who creates heavy burdens for people to carry without lifting them up.