October 23, 2016–– 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12–14, 16–18 / 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16-18 / Luke 18:9–14
The Context of Mercy
A contrast is not the same as having to choose only between the two options. Jesus extends a stark contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Clearly the tax collector is commended and the Pharisee is condemned. But it’s not as if these two men represent the only options; Jesus is not giving an all-encompassing “either/or” with these two characters.
If we stop to remember, outward appearance does not always match our inner desire or motive. Sometimes that is good: What if our worst thoughts always showed themselves outwardly?! We would be afraid to go out in public. But sometimes our outward behavior is far worse than what we desire or intend; we mean to do good, but it turns out wrong to others. That is one reason Jesus said not to judge. Then there are those people who “do good” on the outside just to promote themselves, because on the inside they are vain and selfish. That, of course, is not true goodness.
Pharisees were the most outwardly religious Jews of their day. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story had have some very commendable qualities (assuming he was telling the truth, and he likely was): He was honest in business dealings. He practiced sexual morality. He fasted. He gave a tenth of his total income. All of those are good. Our world would benefit if everyone did these things.
The tax collector was a despised person in Judea. Usually it was a Jew who collaborated with the occupying and oppressive Romans by doing exactly what they were called: collecting taxes from the citizens so that the conquered had to foot the bill for the conquerors. On top of that, tax collectors usually demanded much more than the tax itself, which they used as a lucrative source of income for themselves. Tax collectors were considered guilty of everything for which the Pharisee smugly announced his innocence.
Is Jesus saying God prefers us to be despicable rather than practice outward goodness? Is he using this contrast to bring our focus to how we appear to others? Of course not. Do outward issues matter? Yes––in their proper place. Today’s Gospel is something else. This particular teaching of Jesus goes to the core of how we come to God.
I do not know how many times in Scripture God gives some kind of welcoming invitation for us to come to him as our God…. our Refuge and Helper…. our Savior…. our Father…. our Friend…. Yet there are requirements; perhaps “protocol” is a good way to understand it. If God is God, then we need to come with proper protocol––an attitude that says, “You are God; I am not the one calling the shots.” This honors who God is. This puts us in the place where we can receive the good things God wants to give us.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story was focused on himself. A vain and selfish attitude is probably the biggest obstacle that stands between God and people who are estranged from him. When we put ourselves first, we shut God out. God is honored and we are rewarded when we do good things with a desire to obey and please him. But if we try to use good things to justify ourselves and if we expect God’s favor because of what we do, we build our own wall that cuts God off.
So here was the tax collector who was not doing good. He was siding with evil rulers. He was helping to oppress his own people. He was using a rotten system for his own advantage. But somewhere in that mix of awful stuff, he became aware of it. He seemed to realize suddenly that he needed God’s love and mercy more than he needed the benefits of his conniving position. So from deep within the core of his being came this honest and humble cry: God be merciful to me, a sinner! That is an attitude of heart that tears the wall down and allows God to be God. And when God is allowed to be God, his gift is always mercy.
So, if you are aware of things in your life that are not right, let those things show you your need of God’s mercy. If you sincerely pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner, God will give you mercy and mercy truly received will change your life.
In this context, we’re not to worry about the “other person.” We cannot look at what seems to be good or not-so-good people on the outside and fully know what is in their hearts. We’re each to look into our own hearts and always pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner.
To tell the truth, on the outside I’m more like this Pharisee. I seek to live a meticulously moral life. I read the Bible and pray every day. My wife and I tithe regularly. I even fast sometimes (but I’m not very good at it). Everyone who follows Jesus should practice an obedience that models good things. But no matter how “good” I might appear to be, not one thing I do “buys” God’s favor. If God does not have mercy on me––no matter how “good” my outward practices, I have no hope.
I hope all of us know that is true. No matter how much goodness we have attained, we all fall short (Rom 3:23) of always loving as God loves. None of us has yet attained to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:13). If God does not have mercy, we have no hope. But the whole Gospel is based on this: God is merciful. God be merciful to me, a sinner.