We’ve just listened to another great parable of Jesus. We can just imagine these two men approaching the temple. We can wonder what was it that brought them to this house of God, this house of prayer. We can just hear the Pharisee singing his own praises. He was a faithful Jew. He kept the law and was faithfully observant; he fasted on the days commanded, he supported the temple financially with his tithing. He felt good about himself. He was sure God was pleased with his way of life. He topped off his litany of self praise by thanking God he was not like other people, people he listed as thieves, rouges and adulterers. He was especially grateful he had nothing in common with that tax collector hanging around the back of the temple.
The tax collector knew his place. He kept his distance. He knew the alienation his sins created between himself and God. He knew the alienation his job as tax collector had caused between himself and his fellow Jews. Rather than wallowing in his own guilt and shame he focused on the God who created him and asked to be recreated by his merciful God. Like the sinful King David of long ago he said, ‘what is evil in your sight I have done, against you alone have I sinned and my sin is always before.” He humbly asked God,’ create in me a clean heart and put a steadfast spirit within me.’ Without lifting his eyes to heaven he begged God to fill the emptiness of his soul with God’s life and love.
When we look at the Pharisee and the tax collector we have to admit both these men were telling the truth. The Pharisee was observant to a fault and the tax collector was a crook.
But it was their attitudes that separate them one from the other. The Pharisee was basically telling God,’ you owe me’. Look how faithful I’ve been to the law and the observances. You should be proud of me. See how different I am from that scum of a tax collector back there. Thank God he knows his place and kept out of my space. The attitude of the tax collector is far removed from that of the Pharisee. With nothing to brag about, nothing to say in his favor he keeps his eyes lowered, beats his breast and makes the simple request, ‘Lord be merciful to me a sinner’. He came to the temple to praise God, the Pharisee was there to praise himself.
One of the annoying aspects of this parable is the boast of the Pharisee that he is not like the rest of those present in the Temple that day. From the heights of his self proclaimed holiness he saw himself as the real Jew, the true Jew. Looking around he saw himself surrounded by lesser men, rouges, thieves, adulterers and a tax collector. We have variations of that mentality in our world today. We have the real Christians, the real Catholics, the real Jews, and the real Muslims. There is such arrogance to their claims as they set themselves up as standard bearers of the truth. Each in their own way is thanking God they are not like the rest of us.
When we come here on a Sunday to praise and thank God for God great kindness toward us, when we come to place before Him our fears of growing old, our anxieties about family issues, our concerns about our health, our job security, our worry about what the future holds for us, our sense of failure when we see our next generation estranged from the family of the church, when we kneel or sit and think about the joys and struggles of our lives, if we find ourselves wondering why other people are here, why they are going to Holy Communion, our only question should be, ‘why am I here?’ May none of us look around at anyone else and say those horrible words, ‘thank God I’m not like them.’
Remember we are a gathering of good people, good but struggling people, people who haven’t always lived up to our best. As I’ve said before we are gathering of sinners struggling to be saints. At this holy exchange of gifts we call the Eucharist, when we hear those ageless words of Jesus spoken by the priest – this is my body, take and eat, this is my blood, take and drink – we can reply from the depths of our hearts – this is my body, this is my blood, this is me blessed with so many of your blessings, wounded by so many of my self-inflicted wounds. Take Lord, receive.
As we continue to celebrate this Eucharist together may we make our own the opening prayer of the Mass – may we do with loving hearts what you ask of us knowing that some days we’ll win and some days we’ll lose but that you will always accept the gift of self we offer you at this Mass and at every Mass.