3rd Week of Lent, Saturday, March 13
Hosea 5:15 -6:6 / Luke 18:9-14
Jesus rebukes the self-righteous; "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. "
A young man was very conscious of the fact that he was rather short.He made a point of dating only girls who were much shorter than he so that he could live under the delusion of thinking of himself as being tall. This self-deception, on a much more serious scale, was one of the problems of the Pharisee in today's gospel. His prayer, far from being a humble and honest admission of weakness, was a form of self-congratulations because he was making the wrong point of comparison. Rather than comparing himself with people who had the reputation of being grasping, crooked, and adulterous, he should have been comparing himself with God, who is perfection itself.
We here at Mass today could, I suppose, be thought of as being better than some people who have no regard for religion or morals. And yet, as we begin every Mass, we are urged to call to mind our sins, and to say, in effect, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Indeed, we are sinners in comparison with the goodness of God. And it is who should be the point of comparison since Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
To stand before God with a humble, honest admission of our imperfection is the key to true, effective prayer. Notice that the Pharisee's prayer" was a nauseous mixture of pride and self-complacency. He asked for nothing from Cod, and he received nothing in return. The tax collector asked for mercy and he received justification from God. If our prayer is to be effective, it must begin with a plea for mercy. How sincere, then, should be our prayer, "Lord, have mercy.”
Jesus' parable is not a caricature. It reflects a common attitude among certain Jews. An old Jewish prayerbook reads: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a Gentile. Blessed art Thou who hast not made me a slave."
And the Jewish Talmud quotes Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakaneh as praying daily: "I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou . . .hast not set my portion with those who sit on street corners, for I rise early for the words of the Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk." Prayers quoted in Saint Luke by G. B. Caird
Do we tend to put ourselves up by putting others down? "A mountain shames a molehill until they are both humbled by the stars." Old adage
These days there are some people who seem to want to excuse all sins. They say that heredity is to blame, or environment, or psychological factors, or something else. Still others maintain that a feeling of sinfulness is a guilt complex, a hang-up. They put one in mind of the man who felt he had a guilt complex and told his psychiatrist so. After spending a long time in many visits with the man, the honest psychiatrist said to him, "You don't have a guilt complex; you are guilty."
Certainly, it is true that heredity and environment have influence on us, and a real psychological problem is no laughing matter. But we must remember that the mark of maturity is to accept responsibility for our free actions, not to seek excuses for our mistakes, and that a spiritually healthy person is honest with himself before God, while to deceive oneself habitually and to live in a make-believe world of self-righteousness is to border on mental as well as spiritual illness.
The Pharisee in the parable certainly had no guilt complex; in a sense you might say that he had an innocence complex. Rather than being straightforward and honest, he put forth a catalogue of shallow virtues to cover over the guilt of his deep pride. In contrast the tax collector acted grown up; no excuses, no double talk, just the plain truth about himself as he prayed, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Of course, we should not pretend to have sins, of which we are not guilty, nor should we exaggerate our real sins. But with complete honesty we should admit our sins, and without fear we should turn to Jesus for mercy, who came to call sinners.
Lord, our God, you yourself remind us through your holy people that all our religious practices, even this Eucharistic sacrifice, are not worth anything if we use them to bend you our way. God, may we come to you in humility and repentance, ready to encounter you in love and to turn your way. Accept us as your sons and daughters, together with Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord for ever. Amen