Fr. David’s homily October 30, 2016.
Don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience. You’re sitting minding your own business, maybe at the airport, waiting to pick someone up, or just in the bleachers at your daughter’s softball game. You’re enjoying the quiet time alone. Someone sits next to you and begins a conversation.
“Hi, I’m Jack.” “Hi Jack,” I say. Next question is predictable. I’m told it’s called the American question. Jack: “So what do you do for a living?” “Me? Well, I’m a priest.” “No kidding. I’ve never met a priest before.” “Yes, some of us are still around.” Jack: “I bet it’s fascinating work.” Me? “Yes, it has its moments.” Jack: “Me, I’m a lawyer. I work for [and he gives me the name of a firm I have never heard of] and I’m a senior partner.” “Congratulations.”
And then he goes on to tell me that he has four children, all of whom went to his ivy league alma mater, that he’s divorced, that he plays golf, has a handicap of 4, likes to travel, roots for the Jets, etc., etc., etc. In a matter of 4 minutes this guy gives me his life resume. Mercifully, I see whom I’ve been waiting for and bid Jack goodbye.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector portrays two people who give God their resume. The Pharisee informs God of his own accomplishments. He prays all about himself with a series of five “I” statements. “Listen, I’ve done everything, and more. I’ve fasted; been honest in business; faithful to my wife; I tithe my income to the temple; I’ve served on the parish council; I’ve taught in youth ministry; I’ve marched for the right to life; I’ve witnessed for the farm workers;I’ve volunteered for Habitat for Humanity.” And the Publican? As a tax collector for the Roman Empire he has cut himself off from his people. His work has made him an outsider, a renegade. Maybe he had to take the job because of his family. Now he feels trapped. He’s locked in. No chance of another job. Is he guilt ridden? Does his fear drive him to the temple to wrestle with his life’s contradictions? And so he beats his breast and prays. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
His awareness of God has made him acutely aware of himself as a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Whereas the Pharisee’s prayer is all “I, I, I,” the tax collector’s prayer shines a spotlight on God as “you.”
The bible says that Jesus addresses this parable to those who believe in their own self-righteousness, i.e., those who believe only in themselves. The parable is not about being good or bad, right or wrong. In a wonderful way, Jesus points out to all who listen that no matter who you are, you aren’t going to make it on your own. God meets you in the midst of your uncertainties and failures. Indeed God meets you in some terribly difficult situations. Through this parable Jesus shows us how God embraces someone who at first seems undeserving, a tax collector, but then one who expresses his need, his need for mercy.
I remember reading a novel a few years ago about a priest. He was a Vatican beauraucrat. He did his job well. Kept his vows, lived simply. But life wasn’t going all that well for him. He went to a friend and asked him: “What’s wrong with me? I say my prayers, do my job, but there’s no joy in my life. I feel terribly alone. What’s wrong?” His friend said, “My dear father. You’ve never loved a woman, hated a man, pitied a child or felt the dignity of need.” Ah, the dignity of need! Maybe that’s what sent the tax collector home justified. He didn’t give God his resume. He acknowledged his need and he asked for mercy.
What about you? What about me? Every time we gather here we begin by asking for mercy. “Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.” I suspect, if you’re like me, it becomes pretty routine. But think about it. We begin Mass by shifting the focus from ourselves, from home, from work, from the children, we shift our focus to God. We begin with what one author calls a “faithful Catholic voice.” What’s a “faithful Catholic voice?” It’s a voice that doesn’t know it all. It’s not an examination of conscience. “What’s wrong with me? What have I done wrong?” No, it’s a voice that doesn’t have a magic formula when it comes to complex human issues. It’s a voice that recognizes I’m not my own. I’m not in it by myself. I need all the help I can get. There’s a maddening complexity to my life. Whatever else is required, charity is the quality I need most. Maybe I failed when I dismissed that guy at the airport who gave me his resume. Maybe I should have listened more generously to what was underneath his bravado.
Jesus invites us always, always, to move beyond ourselves, to gather at a table like this, to give thanks for the mercy that liberates us to live freely for one another. Finally, this is a dangerous parable. Perhaps I should keep all talk of the Pharisee and tax collector and ourselves and anyone and everyone else to an absolute minimum. Instead, perhaps we should reserve most of our time, thought, and words for God, the God who creates light from darkness, raises the dead to life, and pulls us all – Pharisees and tax collectors, righteous and sinful, disciples and ne’er-do-wells alike – into a realm of unimaginable and unexpected grace and mercy.
David J. McBriar, O.F.M.
Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”