Every Sunday when we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we begin by taking a moment to remember that we have sinned. Before entering the presence of God, we remember that He is the good and holy One. We are sinners, unworthy to enter His house because we so often fail to reflect His love in our thoughts and actions. Nonetheless, He is merciful, quick to forgive us and close to us when we call. We set the tone for our worship together by remembering that our presence here has less to do with our own holiness or goodness and everything to do with His love and mercy. We are not here to pat ourselves on the back for all the good things we do. Rather we are here to celebrate and praise the God who saves us. And so we pray: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
The Pharisee in today’s gospel has got it all wrong. He is no doubt a good man. In his fasting and religious practices, he goes far beyond what the Law requires. On the outside, he is beyond reproach. But have his good works made him more grateful to God? Has all his fasting opened his heart to the needs of others? It seems from Jesus’ description that quite the opposite has happened. Rather than make him more humble, it has made him more proud. Rather than having greater compassion for others, religion has made this Pharisee harsh and judgmental. He is absolutely blind to his own need for God. In fact, God has no place in his prayer at all. It is all about what he has done and how much better he is than everyone else - not by God’s grace, but by his own efforts.
It is important for us to reflect on Jesus’ message in this parable. We are all more or less good and religious people. We come to Mass and observe the precepts of the Church. We contribute as much as we can. But what is happening in our hearts? Are we becoming more compassionate or more judgmental? Are we drawing more and more of our strength from God or is it all a matter of our own will-power and self-discipline? Do we come into God’s presence aware of our need for His mercy, or do we think our virtuous lives and good deeds somehow earn us a hearing from the Almighty?
One thing is clear. If being nice and following rules could get us into heaven, then it would not have been necessary for Jesus to die on the cross for us. The fact is that all of us are sinners, and no one is so good that he or she deserves a place at God’s table. Our faith and the good works it produces are a pure gift of God’s mercy to us. We can choose to accept it or reject it, but we have no right to brag about it or to look down on our brothers and sisters who may not seem to give as much as we do.
Following certain rules have their place in our walk with Christ. However, they are not the most important measure of our Christian lives. Rather, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we will love our neighbor. The deeper we grow in our faith, the more willing we will be to forgive and the more patient we will be with the weakness of others. And the more we draw our strength from the well of God’s grace, the more clearly we will see our own weakness and sinfulness.
On the other hand, if we are comparing ourselves to others and judging them, then we do not know Jesus, for He is, above all else, forgiving and merciful. If that is our attitude, then we have lost our way just as surely as if we had stopped believing altogether.
When Jesus walked among us as a man, he welcomed many different sinners and forgave them. Former prostitutes and tax-collectors were among those who followed Him. He was willing to forgive the thief who was crucified beside Him. He even forgave those who tortured and killed Him. But there was one sin that Jesus condemned in the strongest possible language. It was the sin of self-righteousness. It was not just their arrogance and pride that angered Him. What most frustrated Him was that they were completely blind to their sin. They could not repent or receive forgiveness because they did not realize they needed it and could not ask for it. Jesus could not teach them about His mercy because they were too caught up in their own goodness. Because of it, they missed the opportunity that any of us would love to have - to meet Jesus, to speak to Him and to learn from Him.
How do we keep ourselves from falling into the same trap of trusting in our own goodness so much that we miss the opportunity to draw our strength from God’s mercy?
The first step is to go to confession. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we encounter Jesus who loves us and is willing to forgive us. It is such a powerful means of healing precisely because we come to Jesus just as we are - acknowledging that we have sinned and that there is no other way for us to be forgiven than to beg Him for it. Getting on our knees and confessing our sins is never easy. But it is the best medicine for a judgmental or critical attitude. When we face our own sinfulness, we become more patient and gentle in our dealings with others. Our hearts begin to soften, and love becomes a more natural response for us.
Once we have received God’s mercy, the second step is to show that same mercy to others through our good deeds. By practicing works of mercy - feeding the hungry, praying for the dead, visiting the sick and giving to the poor - we are showing to others the same love God has shown us. Our good deeds are no longer a reason for us to brag or to grow in pride but a response to the mercy of God. When our hearts are humble, we will be able to see Jesus and serve Him in the needy we encounter every day.
Jesus is here among us. We will drop to our knees as bread and wine become His very Body and Blood. We will be filled with awe that we have been forgiven and welcomed to the banquet of God’s love. Forever changed, we will leave this place to spread the message of His mercy by our good deeds. Then the whole world will know this God who hears the cry of the poor.
(image by Jeannie Motherwell)