Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Luke 18:9-14
The gospel account we just heard is famous. It tells the well-known story of the sinner who sat in the back of the Temple seeking mercy while the Pharisee sat up in front reminding God about what a great person he was. His “holier than thou” argument is often used today by those who don’t go to church in order to criticize those of us who do. But the story goes much deeper than the comparisons we make between others and ourselves. The parable deals with our perception of who we are in the eyes of God.
This parable reaches to the core of our relationship with God. The real basis of that relationship is that God chooses us. He establishes the relationship. We haven’t won this relationship with our prayers, or our actions. No, it’s the other way around. It is God who choses us. This truth has not been easy for many to accept. It has taken an infinite struggle on God’s part. Taking on our humanity and becoming one of us in His Incarnate Son, His effort has been directed toward all of us. The extent of His love for us is proven through His sacrificial love for all of us on the Cross. The struggle also includes our Lord’s continual effort to win each one of us into His love.
So often, however, you and I have run from Him. Perhaps we fear that His love for us is too demanding. Maybe we’re afraid that getting close to God means we have to give up all of the fun things in life. Maybe we’re afraid that He will ask us to give up things that we feel we just can’t give up. Or… maybe it’s a control issue. Do I control my life, or does God control my life?
In our relationship with God each one of us has been gifted with God’s love, a love flowing to us through our family of faith, the Church. At the same time His love is unique since we are individuals. God loves us all and at the same time He loves each one of us individually. While I am a member of His Church I nevertheless stand before God’s eyes all by myself. Each one of you has his or her own unique and individual relationship with God. But we must always remember that in the eyes of God no one person is better or worse than another person. Take, for example, your own relationship with your own children. Each one of your kids is not better or worse than the others. To be sure, they are different. Yet all of your children, each and every one, receive 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 does judge, however, our actions.
One of the ways that we tend to avoid accepting responsibility for our actions is to contrast ourselves with those whose deeds appear to be worse than ours. The Pharisee’s thought: “Look at that guy; he is a sinner and a tax collector. At least I’m better than him…” is a judgment that is no different than thinking to myself: “Look at that guy, he’s a drug addict. At least I’m better than him.”
Comparisons are usually both sad and bad. Our advertising industry is based on making comparisons. Ads are designed to make us dissatisfied with what we have in order to motivate us to go out and buy something to improve out lot in life, or how we think we look. But when it comes to comparing ourselves with others, well… we either come of 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. And, if truth were told, all of us are making comparisons every day. Thankfully this round of elections is about to come to an end — thank God! I’m sick of them with their politics of personal destruction.
Do we find Jesus making comparisons? No, we don’t! What we do find is Jesus associating Himself and giving His best gifts of love to those whom everyone else has shunned, those whom everyone else has considered to be inferior.
No matter who you are or where you find yourself, give thanks to God for your own goodness, but at the same time realize that God sees into the heart and soul of each of His children. He looks into our hearts and He sees all those hidden forces that have pushed us in one direction or another. God sees the times He has directly intervened in our lives offering us His presence. And He sees the times that we have accepted His presence and the times that we have told him, “Not now… not in this matter… maybe later. You are asking too much.” He judges us as individuals. He is not concerned with who is better than whom. He is only concerned with how well each of us has individually responded to His love.
Catholicism is often accused of putting people on guilt trips. That is not true. Catholicism puts people on reality trips. Catholicism dares to speak about unpopular topics like sin. Catholicism dares to invite people to consider their own participation in sin, to admit the truth, and to seek forgiveness. Is that really a guilt trip? Or is it a reality trip? I firmly believe that Catholicism fosters a realistic approach to living. It recognizes that our salvation is a process in which we are engaged. We are not saved yet… we are being saved. It recognizes that we are human beings and that we can give in to temptation to sin. It tells us that the Lord was one of us. He experienced what temptation and He understands our need for mercy. He gives us the sacrament of mercy, penance, and reconciliation because He wants His mercy directing our lives, not our guilt.
Catholicism is not so much concerned with guilt as it is concerned with mercy. So many times I have had people tell me how much they need the loving mercy of God. They are realists. We all need the mercy of God. As we come to a deeper understanding of all that God has done for us, we also come to a deeper understanding of how much we need His mercy and forgiveness. The greatest saints are people who saw themselves a great sinners because they had a profound realization of the extent of God’s love for them and the many times they had not returned His love.
The pilgrim’s prayer is simple and profound. It is the prayer of the man in the back of the Temple who realized that he was totally dependent on God’s love, a love that he had often rejected. The pilgrim’s prayer is the prayer that we all need to say within our hearts throughout our days — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
A Pharisee and a tax collector came into the Temple. Both were there to pray. Only one was humble enough to recognize his need for the healing hand of God. He was the one who truly prayed because he realized how much he really needed God. He was the one who left the Temple with God’s arms around him. The Pharisee left with having nothing but his own self-satisfaction.
After 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.”