What It Means to be Rich

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus addresses a parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” – the parable of the phraisee and the tax collector.

The parable is one that is familiar to many of us. Two men went to the temple to pray. One, a tax collector, stood in the distance, and humbly and sorrowfully prayed, acknowledging his sins and asking for God’s mercy. The other, a Pharisee stood front and center and “spoke [a] prayer to himself,” a prayer that outlined his strengths and expressed thanks that he was “not like the rest of humanity.”

Jesus’ message from the parable was that it was “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Preaching on this parable, St. Augustine of Hippo held up the tax collector as a model: “He was looking at his own emptiness, but he knew what ample wealth the Lord disposed of. He knew that he was coming thirsty to the fountain,” in asking for God’s mercy. Augustine goes one to say that because of this, the tax collector “was already to some extent rich, since he had the idea of making such a request. After all, if he had been completely poor, where would he have been able to produce these gems of confession from?”

The pharisee, in contrast, lacked what the tax collector had: “He was boastful, but it was all hot air, no solid substance. He thought himself rich though he had nothing. The other man admitted he was poor, thought he already had something.”

The tax collector is a wonderful example of poverty of spirit, a poverty that is itself a sign of richness. When we know what we lack, and what we need, we have everything.