Perhaps you are—or have been—like me and sometimes struggled to quite understand that very well-known but puzzling saying of God’s from our first reading today: ‘The Lord is … no respecter of persons.’
On first hearing, it can sound as if God is uninterested in us; that the Creator, having made humanity from dust, then simply gave up on us. As the young’uns would say, where’s the respect?
Our Catholic translation of the phrase might help us to make more sense of what’s going on here, and point us in the right direction for our own faith. As the reading put it, God is no respecter of personages, and quickly goes on to identify a specific group of persons to whom this dis-respect is directed.
These ‘personages’ are those who act to the detriment of the poor or injured among them. They are the ones who ignore the downtrodden and isolated.
In today’s parlance, ‘personages’ are the powerful elite, the celebrity influencers, who do not wish to associate with anyone who is not of their kind or who does not hold to their set of lifestyle preferences. The ‘personages’ whom the Lord cannot bring himself to respect are those who are so self-centred that they think others ought to follow in their footsteps.
Like his heavenly Father, Jesus also didn’t have much regard for such personages. The pharisee in today’s Gospel would come under that description. He took pride in himself, to the detriment and humiliation of the tax collector. He might have been doing all the ‘right things’—I pray, I fast, I tithe—but he was doing them all for the wrong reasons.
Jesus was instead attracted to the tax collector because of his penitent disposition before God. Here was a person who, quite possibly, was richer in material wealth than the pharisee. Yet, he had humbly recognised his own unworthiness before God.
What a powerful prayer he prayed, in no more than seven words: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Might this be our constant and most insistent prayer, for it is to the one who is humble whom God will exalt.
The one who can contritely turn to God in trust and hope is the one who God will most readily see and respond to. It is to the darkest places of our lives that God goes to find us in tenderness. It is the heart in need of healing where God is most present with his medicine of grace and forgiveness.
The parable of Jesus finds its reality in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is where the story about someone else becomes our story. Might I offer a word of encouragement that this sacrament of forgiveness be a part of your life?
And in that moment of healing and hope, might you make your own the prayer of the tax collector: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ It’s the best act of contrition I know, for the Lord will not be slow to respond to it.
Main image: The Pharisee and the Publican (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), wood engraving, after Sir John Everett Millais, engraved and printed by Dalziel Brothers, 1864.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli03 February 2023
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli31 January 2023