30th Sunday: Living the Reality--Under the Mercy of God
When I came here as pastor 19 years ago, I was surprised to see that at some Masses sections of the Church were still being roped off so the congregation would be forced into the front and middle sections of the Church. It only took me three weeks to convince the ushers at the time to stop doing this. Of course, I also had to throw out the ropes.
There were several reasons why I was so against this. First of all, I hate it when people are confronted with do’s and don’t’s the as soon as they walk into Church. Second there are some people who need to be in the back for health reasons. But the main reason for getting rid of the ropes was something a man once said to me after I tried to convince people to sit closer to the altar: “Father, I just recently returned to Church. I’ve made the big step to walk through the door, but you’ve got to let me ease my way up into being in the middle of the congregation. I have a lot of things that the Lord and I need to deal with first.”
That’s why the tax collector was in the back of the Temple. He made the big step to enter the Temple. He didn’t feel that it was right for him to come any closer. It is not that he didn’t want to participate in the service. He and God had things he needed to work out. Namely, he needed God’s mercy.
The prayers of the tax collector and the Pharisee were very different. The Pharisee was fulfilling an obligation in the Law to worship. He made sure that God remembered what a great person he was and would give him the reward he felt he deserved. To emphasize this, he pointed to the tax collector, “I certainly am a lot better than that guy over there.”
The tax collector didn’t make any comparisons, nor did he try to remind God of any of the good things he had done in his life. He didn’t say, “I know I’ve done wrong, collecting taxes for the Romans from my own people and making a profit on it for myself, but I also fed my neighbor’s family when he died suddenly, and I routinely give alms to beggars.” Nor did he say, “Lord, I am not an arrogant man, like that Pharisee.” His prayer was simply, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
The parable reaches to the core of our relationship with God. God chooses us. He establishes the relationship. We haven’t won this relationship with our prayers, or our actions. God has chosen us. And this has not been easy. It has taken an infinite struggle on his part. This struggle included the struggle for people in general, necessitating his becoming one of his people and showing them the extent of his love for them through the sacrificial love of the cross. The struggle also includes the Lord’s continual effort to win each of us into his love as individuals. So often, God has had to be that Hound of Heaven that Francis Thompson spoke of. Do you remember that poem? It began:
I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him down the arche of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from him.
God is determined to form a relationship with each of us. So often we have run from Him. When we realize that God has chosen us as individuals, that He loves each of us, and when we consider how we have resisted Him, we realize that our prayer must begin with, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”
The relationship with God that each of us have been gifted with flows through the Saved Community, the Church, yet it is unique since we are individuals. No one is better or worse than another person in the eyes of God. We are all unique. Good parents do not treat their children as better or worse than each other. They see them as different from each other. “This child struggles in math but is a great reader. His brother is the exact opposite.” The good parent sees both children as unique and cares for them for whom each is, not in comparison to their brother or sister. We are God’s children. God sees us as individuals. He doesn’t judge us as better or worse than another person. He loves each of us as unique individuals. He forgives each of us for the times we have not returned his love. We all live under his mercy.
Catholicism is often accused of putting people on guilt trips. This is not true. Catholicism puts people on reality trips. Catholicism dares to speak about unpopular topics like sin. Catholicism dares to invite people to consider their own participation in sin and seek forgiveness. It recognizes that our salvation is a process we are engaged in. We are not saved yet, we are being saved. It recognizes that we are human beings and that we can give in to temptation to sin. It tells us that the Lord was one of us. He experienced what temptation was and he understands our need for mercy. He gives the sacrament of mercy, penance, because he wants his mercy, not our guilt directing our lives.
Catholicism is not concerned with guilt, it is concerned with mercy. People are continually telling their priests how much they need the Mercy of God. They are realists. We all need the mercy of God. As we come to a deeper understanding of all that God has done for us, we also come to a deeper understanding of how much we need his mercy and forgiveness. The greatest saints are people who see themselves a great sinners because they have a profound realization of the extent of God’s love for them and the many times they have not returned His love.
The parable today leaves us with what the Middle Ages called “the pilgrim’s prayer.” The pilgrim’s prayer is simple and profound. It is the prayer of the man in the back of the Temple who realized that he is totally dependent on God’s love, a love that he had often rejected. The pilgrim’s prayer is the prayer that we all need to say with our hearts throughout our day, “O Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
A pharisee and a tax collector come into the Temple. Both are there to pray. Only one is a humble enough to recognize his need for the healing hand of God. Only one prays because only one realizes that he really needs God. And that one leaves in the embrace of the Lord’s love.