The Pharisees were a tragic group in today’s gospel story. Theirs a movement of popular piety that aimed to promote a revival of Israel’s traditions. Many of them were honorable, and some of them even found faith in Jesus. This parable, however, highlights the issue that brought some of them into conflict with Jesus. They thought that they were righteous and faithful to the God of the covenant through their strict observance of the externals of the Law’s requirements, to the extent of neglecting justice, almsgiving and the love of God and others. The Pharisee in this parable is pleased with himself because he does more than what the Law requires on fasting and giving tithes. He brings this to the attention of the Lord and thus establishes his claim on God’s favor. He betrays his spirit of self-sufficiency and in his prayer he is speaking of himself and to himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, “went home at rights with God” because of the humble repentance and confession that made up his prayer. The only attitude that opens a genuine meeting with God is humility. There is nothing we can offer to God that is not His gift in the first place. All that we can bring before Him that is truly ours is our sinfulness.
The classic way to stay in touch with God is through prayer. Although the ideal prayer for Christians is that of praise and thanksgiving, there is also a place for prayers of petition, as today’s parable makes quite clear. For many of us, God seems so remote and so insensitive to our pleas that we may feel He is no different from the judge in the parable. It is faith alone that enables us to experience God as exceedingly good, loving and caring. We ought to persist in our prayers to Him, not just because we need His help, but primarily because we want simply to stay in touch with a wonderful Person who loves us unconditionally and who will give us what we need…and much more. Our relationship with God is not unlike that of children who expect their parents to respond positively to every request they make. But good and loving parents know that these requests are not always in the best interest of their children. Many children would quit school or eat any junk food if their parents would allow it. The important thing for all concerned is to maintain a loving and trusting contact, in spite of occasional bumps on the road.
The central theme of today’s readings is gratitude for the many blessings we have received from God. Naaman, the Syrian military general in the first reading, was an outcast not only because of his leprosy but because he was a non-Israelite. But he returned to thank the prophet Elisha for curing him of leprosy, and as a sign of his gratitude, he transferred his allegiance to the God of Israel. St. Paul, in the second reading, advises Timothy to be grateful to God, who is ever faithful to His people, even in his physical sufferings and amid the dangers that come with spreading the Gospel. By describing the reaction of the ten lepers to Jesus’ miraculous healing of their physically devastating and socially isolating disease, today’s gospel presents the gratitude and ingratitude of people. Of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one, a non-Jew, returned to thank Jesus, while the other nine did not, which prompted Jesus to ask, “Where are the other nine?” Being Jews, they felt Jesus owed it to them to heal them. This is the prevailing attitude of ungrateful people, which doesn’t sit well with God.