30th Sun [C] 2007

Fr. Charles Irvin

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,6-18; Luke 18:9-14

We live out our days filled with comparisons. Our advertising industry is based on them. Ads are designed to make us dissatisfied with what we have in comparison with others in order to motivate us to go out and buy something to improve on our lot, or how we look, or how we feel about ourselves. Comparisons are usually both sad and bad. The presidential election campaign is in our news on an hourly basis. We are awash in it. Moreover it feels like we’ve been in presidential election campaigns for the past ten years. I, for one, am sick of it.

At work and in our professions we are constantly making comparisons with our fellow workers or colleagues. When it comes to sports, we’re always making comparisons. At exam times in our schools we’re making comparisons. Our lives are filled with comparisons.

When it comes to comparing ourselves with others, well… we either come off being arrogant or else we end up with a huge inferiority complex. Teenagers struggle with comparing themselves with other teens, which I suspect accounts for their frequent and unpredictable mood changes.

Comparisons, comparisons, comparisons… we’re into them all of the time. But God isn’t! Do we find Jesus in the gospel accounts making comparisons? No, we don’t. What we do find is Jesus associating himself and giving His best gifts and His love to those whom everyone else has shunned… those whom everyone else has judged to be inferior.

In Matthew’s eighth chapter we find Jesus associating with a Roman army officer, a centurion, whose servant was paralyzed and in terrible pain. It’s difficult for us to imagine the extent to which the people of Jesus’ day hated the Roman military and particularly its officers. Yet Jesus congratulates the Roman centurion on his faith and as a result cures the officer’s servant.

In Luke’s seventh chapter we find Jesus forgiving the woman caught in the very act of adultery. Everyone else wanted to stone her to death. Jesus didn’t compare her with anyone else and ended up forgiving her sins.

In that same chapter of Luke we find a prostitute who came into a dinner party, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, anointed them with a very expensive and beautiful ointment, and then dried His feet with her hair. Everyone else at that dinner party was disgusted not only with her but also with Jesus for accepting for her.

Then there was fat little Zacchaeus, the Jewish traitor who sold out to the Romans and collected Roman taxes from poor and oppressed Jews, his own people. St. Luke told us about him in his nineteenth chapter. Remember him? He climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus… and Jesus went over to his house for dinner. Jesus wasn’t into the comparison game.

One of my favorite stories is the one about the Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well. She was the woman who had five husbands and was now simply living with a man. Everyone considered her to be little more than scum. Jesus didn’t. Read about their encounter in the fourth chapter of St. John’s gospel.

Today we just heard about two men in the Temple, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee was filled with self-deception and self-conceit. He enjoyed the pride of class, the pride of his self-righteous religion, and the pride of being numbered among the “right people.” His self-deception was built on comparing himself with the other man there in the Temple, the tax collector. 

Self-deception generated by comparison with others is a form of avoidance and denial. When we’re totally concerned with other people’s faults we’re not paying attention to our own. Being critical of others frees us from being critical of ourselves. It helps us to live in denial.

All of this “better than” nonsense doesn’t matter with God. Before God’s eyes you and I are no better than anyone else. And no one is any worse than we are. For the truth is that we all stand in complete need before God. We all are in complete need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus is pointing this out to us when He brings us now to pay attention to the tax collector, the publican, we just heard about in today’s gospel account. He probably didn’t even notice the Pharisee. He was simply paying attention to the state of his own soul and the fact that he needed, totally needed, God’s forgiveness.

Going to confession and confessing our sins to a priest bothers a whole lot of people in the world that surrounds us. They’re quite annoyed by any mention of sin. They slur the Catholic Church with their mockeries about “Catholic guilt”. They tell us that the Catholic Church is all about guilt – running guilt trips on people. It’s sad they see things that way. What they don’t see is that the Church is all about forgiveness, about God’s tender, loving mercies, not guilt.

Our Church’s main message is that we are being-redeemed and loved sinners. Sure, we have sinned. Who hasn’t? It’s what we do about sin that matters. Those critics of our Church fail to see that they are just like the Pharisee in today’s gospel account — self-righteous, superior, and conceited. They think they’re better than stupid Catholics. In their thinking they belong to the “right people” – we don’t.

In our relationship with God each one of us has been gifted with God’s love, a love that flows through our family of faith, the Church. Yet His love is unique to each one of us because we are individuals. I stand before the eyes of God all by myself. Each one of you has his or her own unique and individual relationship with God. No one of us is better or worse than another person in the judgment of God. Look, for example, at your own relationship with your own children. Each of your kids is no better or worse than the others. Yet, to be sure, they are different. Isn’t it true that all of your children, each and every one of them, receives all of your love?

And so it is with God. We are all God’s children. Yet God sees us and loves us individually. He doesn’t judge us as better or worse than another person. He gives all of His love to each one of us.

A Pharisee and a tax collector come into the Temple. Both are there to pray. Only one is a humble enough to recognize his need for the healing hand of God. He is the one who truly prays because he realizes how much he really needs God. He is the one who leaves the Temple with God’s arms around him. The Pharisee leaves having nothing but his own self-satisfaction. When this Mass is over, what will we leave with? 

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”