During the customary Wednesday morning Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis has made his catechesis on humble prayer that obtains mercy, commenting on the Lucan parable of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the temple. “Jesus wants to teach us what is the right attitude to pray and invoke the mercy of God – begins the Pontiff, addressing the faithful in the square -. Both characters go to the temple to pray, but they act in very different ways, getting the opposite results. The Pharisee prays standing and using many words. His prayer is a thanksgiving to God, but it is actually a display of his own merits, with a sense of superiority towards ‘other men, described as thieves, unjust, and adulterers’, such as, for example, – and he points to the other man who was there – ‘this publican”.
“But that is exactly his problem – Francis says – that Pharisee prays God, but the truth is he only looks at himself. He prays himself! Instead of the Lord, there is a mirror before his eyes. Although located in the temple, he does not feel the need to bow before the majesty of God; standing, he feels safe, as if he were the master of the temple! He lists the good works he has done: he is beyond reproach, observes the Law even more than necessary, fasts ‘twice a week’, and pays the ‘tenth’ on everything he has. In short, rather than praying, the Pharisee of its precepts. Yet, his attitude and words are far from God’s way of speaking and acting. God loves all people and does not despise sinners. Whereas the Pharisee despises sinners, even when he points his finger at the other man present there. In short, the Pharisee, who feels rightful, neglects the most important commandment: love for God and for the neighbor.”
Instead, it is crucial to come before God the way we are, without hypocrisy: “It is not enough, therefore, to ask ourselves how much we pray, we must also ask how we pray, or rather, how our heart are – the Pope says – it is important to search our heart, examine our thoughts, feelings, and eradicate arrogance and hypocrisy. I ask you: ‘can one pray with arrogance?’ No. Can one pray with hypocrisy? No. We must pray God the way we are. Whereas that man prayed with arrogance and hypocrisy. ”
“We are all victims of our frenzy daily rhythm, often at the mercy of feelings, dazed, confused – he continues -. We need to learn how to find the way to our heart, retrieve the value of intimacy and silence, because that is where God meets us and speaks to us. Only if we start from here, we can meet the others in our turn and talk to them. The Pharisee has set out towards the temple, he is self-confident, but he does not realize that he has lost the way of his heart.”
The prayer of the publican is of a different kind, it is humble and sincere: “The publican (the other man) comes to the temple with a humble and contrite heart: ‘he stopped far off and could not even find the courage to lift up his eyes to heaven, beating his chest’. His prayer is very short, it is not as long as that of the Pharisee: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Nothing more. ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Beautiful prayer, right? Can we repeat it thrice all together? Let us say it: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, be merciful to me a sinner. O God, be merciful to me a sinner!'” Bergoglio repeated along with the praying crowd. “In fact – he continued -, tax collectors (called “publicans”) were considered impure persons who truckle to foreign rulers; they were disliked by the people and typically associated with sinners.”
“The parable teaches us that people are rightful or sinners not due to their social belonging, but based on their relation with God and with their brothers,” assures the Holy Father, noting also that: “The publican’s acts of penance and few and simple words testify to his awareness about his miserable condition. His prayer is essential. He acts as a humble man whose only certainty is that he is a sinner in need of pity. Whereas the Pharisee asked nothing because he already had everything, the publican can only beg the mercy of God. And this is nice, is it not? Begging God’s mercy. Coming ’empty-handed’, with a naked heart and recognizing he is a sinner, a publican shows us all the conditions necessary to receive the Lord’s forgiveness. Eventually he, so despised, becomes an icon of the true believer.”
Over the centuries, the tax collector has become an example of “true believer”, whereas the Pharisee has become the icon of the “corrupt man who pretends to pray”: “Jesus concludes the parable with a sentence: ‘I tell you, this man – that is, the tax collector – rather than the other, went back home justified, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted’. Who is the corrupt between the two of them? The Pharisee. The Pharisee is the very icon of the corrupt man who pretends to pray, but only manages to preen himself in front of a mirror. He is corrupt, but pretends to pray.”
“Thus, those who think they are righteous, judge the others and despise them, are corrupt and hypocritical – says Bergoglio -. Pride affects every good deed, empties prayer, and pushes away from God and from the others. If God prefers humility, it is not to debase us: humility is a necessary condition for being raised by Him, to experience the mercy that comes to fill our voids. If the prayer of the proud man does not reach the heart of God, the humility of the poor opens it.”
“God has a weakness: a weakness for the humble – ensures the Holy Father -. In front of a humble heart, God opens his heart entirely. ‘This is the humility the Virgin Mary expressed in the canticle of the Magnificat: ‘He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. […] From generation to generation his mercy towards them who fear him’. Help us, our mother – concluded Pope Francis – to pray with a humble heart. And let us repeat three more times, that beautiful prayer: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Three times: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Thank you”.