If you wanted to know what was going on in the neighborhood, you only needed to stop by Rita’s house.
Every morning, she would preside over a group of ladies who sat around her kitchen table drinking coffee and gossiping about everyone else in the neighborhood. They amused themselves laughing over which husband was cheating on which wife, which young girl had just gotten pregnant or which couple was getting a divorce. If someone she knew was having trouble in her marriage or at his job, you could be sure that Rita was on the phone telling someone else about it and enjoying every minute of it.
It seems, however, that while she was so consumed with the troubles her neighbors were having, Rita could not see the problems in her own home. It all began to unravel for her one evening when her husband left a bar drunk and crashed his car into a tree almost killing himself and another passenger. Then one of her daughters told her she was separating from her husband even though they had only been married for eight months. Finally, her 16 year-old granddaughter became pregnant.
The friends who used to gather at her table weren’t coming around anymore. To her dismay, she discovered that the ladies who used to gossip with her were all too eager to gossip about her. Because she had such a reputation as a gossip and because she had hurt so many people’s feelings over the years, the rumors that spread about her family were even more vicious. She found herself alone with no one to support her.
This experience forced her to talk a good hard look at herself. Reflecting on all those years of gossiping, she understood that the reason she did it was because she did not feel good about herself. Talking about the problems of others distracted her from her own problems. Looking down on her neighbors who were struggling gave her the sense that she was somehow superior to them.
It was when she turned to her parish prayer group that she found the grace and strength to change. There she met people who supported others in their struggles and cried with them. With time she was able to open up about her own problems and find comfort. At one meeting, she got up to share about her change of heart and told the group that rather than spend her time talking about the lives of others she was going to talk about what God had done for her. She called it “gossiping about Jesus.”
When Rita discovered that she was no better than anyone else - that misfortune could also touch her life - she could then begin to really support others in their struggles and find comfort in her own.
Like Rita and like the Pharisee in today’s gospel, we often fall into the temptation of considering ourselves better than others. If we are honest, we must admit that from time to time we are sizing others up and finding ways that we are superior to them. Either we live in a better home than they do, make more money or have more fun. This attitude is especially loathsome when religious people judge others to not be living the faith as well as they are. There is something particularly perverse about those of us who judge others because they sin differently than we do. Nothing is as deadly to a parish as parishioners who look down on others, judge them harshly and gossip about them.
It is said that the faults we see in others are often the faults we ourselves have. If we find ourselves trapped in attitudes of superiority, it is most likely because there is something going on in our lives that we are struggling to deal with. It is easier to dwell on the misfortunes and failings of others than to learn to cope with our own. When we catch ourselves judging others, it is a warning that we should stop and look at our own heart to see what we are trying to avoid.
The tax collector in Jesus’ parable was justified when he humbly admitted his sinfulness and turned to God for mercy. Rita was able to change her heart when she discovered that all her gossiping was a way of avoiding her own problems. When we stop judging others, admit our own sins and turn to God for mercy, we too will find forgiveness and the strength to change.
We are all sisters and brothers. Each of us fails daily in living our Christian faith. We even fail at being decent human beings at times. What we need from one another is understanding and not judgment, support and not ridicule. This church especially should be a place where people experience the mercy of Jesus alive among us by the way we welcome them, cry with them and help them. There is no excuse for us to look down on others. Rather we should be lifting them up just as Jesus has lifted us up and forgiven us.
If today we can look into our own heart and humbly admit our weakness rather than dwelling on how much better we are than others, we will leave this church justified.