As usual one can listen to the homily here.
I suppose we have all come across people “who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else”. If we are honest we might admit that we too can be that way. How many of us think that we are not that bad? How many of us are convinced of our own sinfulness? How many of us think that God owes us something, that He is unfair and unjust when something bad happens to us and that we do not deserve our misfortunes? These “Two men” represent the two camps within the human race and perhaps the two sides of the fallen human heart. Both turn to God but only one of them is praying, only one is worshipping.
The Pharisees were a lay movement within Judaism: concerned with ritual and legal purity, rigorist in their thinking, caught up in externals and the keeping of the Jewish Law. By Law they meant not just the 601 commandments of the Old Testament but the whole body of other laws and interpretations of that Law that had been built up around it over the centuries. This Pharisee was as socially acceptable, as politically correct, as one could get.
The Pharisee “took up his position”, that is, his usual spot where he could be seen by everyone and spoke this prayer to himself, not to God. He fails to acknowledge God’s righteousness and his own sinfulness. He gives thanks to God but stands in judgment on everyone else, especially the tax collector. He rightly lists the sins of mankind but fails to acknowledge that he too is a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Instead his real religion is built entirely on his own achievements: his fasting and his tithing (one tenth of all his income). That’s the full story of his righteousness – fasting and tithing – he has nothing else of which to boast. He’s devoid of humility, compassion and love. Here is a danger for all of us, that we pray to God as we want Him to be not as He is. We can risk praying and relating not to God but to a projection of our own self.
Our era did not invent out-sourcing. The Romans already understood the concept. The tax collector was collaborator with the unclean, pagan, and oppressive Romans, an extortionist, and a traitor. This man made his living by buying the right to collect taxes from the Romans and then extorting what he could from the people in his area. He would not have been welcome in the Temple. The tax collector “stood off at a distance and beat his breast” as an expression of sorrow and repentance for sin and humility before God, that we emulate at the Confiteor. Note that he “would not even raise his eyes to heaven” because of his humility, for we are unworthy of seeing God and he prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ Again the humility and sorrow because his prayer acknowledges his utter dependence on God for mercy. He has nothing to boast about before God and he knows it.
The humble, repentant tax collector went home right with God because God, in His mercy, has made him just because he humbly asked for mercy. While the Pharisee, for all his efforts, has failed simply because he could not admit his need of God’s mercy. The Lord admonishes us that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The path to holiness is through humble admission of sin and guilt, through throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.
I have often heard people speak about God’s mercy as if they will be able to appeal to it when they are dead. Even priests seem to speak as if God’s mercy comes into play after we leave this world. While it is true that when we die we will really come to understand His mercy that will not be the time to appeal to it. The time to appeal to God’s mercy is now. This is the time of His favour when we can call on Him and make use of His generosity towards us. Leaving off repentance until our deathbed or later is the height of stupidity. When we are dead we face not God’s mercy but His justice.
Sin is not about breaking the arbitrary laws made up by the Pope. Sin is a violation of that moral order I spoke of some weeks ago. Sin is fundamentally an attempt to place ourselves in God’s place, at the centre of everything and to have everyone and everything orbit around us. If you think about it anything that is wrong is rooted in human self-centeredness. As creatures who are fallen we are prone to confuse the good with our own selfishness. We have this disordered drive to be at the centre. The paradox is that God, the true source and centre of everything, is all gift. The Holy Trinity is all love, each of the Three Persons eternally giving themselves away. It is God, because of His love and mercy, that has created us and sent His Son to us and offers us His mercy through the Church and the Sacraments.
Therefore we ought to avail ourselves of that which He has provided: especially Confession! This is such a neglected Sacrament. Yet we cannot make progress in holiness without it. To make a good confession it is required that we have sincere contrition, that is sorrow, even partial sorrow, for our sins, confess them, especially mortal sins, in kind and in number and receive absolution. None of us can guarantee that we have sufficient sorrow for our wrongdoing. Perfect contrition is when we are sorry for the offence we have given to God’s goodness and love. God is not personally offended like some cantankerous old man but we owe God as our creator and redeemer, we owe Him respect, love and worship not just in our words but in our actions.
When we are asked to confess our sins in kind and number it is not because God does not already know nor because the priests are keeping a record! It is because God wants to be intimately involved in everything we are and to heal each of our wounds individually. Just as a mother will kiss her child’s bruise better so in confession God wishes to kiss each of our sins away. Unlike a mother’s kiss though God’s grace can heal and restore any wound. In addition naming our sins in kind and number helps the priest help us. If one has stolen once then that is wrong but if one has stolen a hundred times then one is either a professional thief or a cleptomaniac. Yes it can be embarrassing to name ones sins just as it is painful to let the doctor examine our wounds but if we do not let the doctor near the wound how can he heal it?
Some say they find they only repeat a shopping list of sins, always the same. Of course you do – they’re your sins. Our fallen state affects us all but it expresses itself differently in different ways. Just as each of us has a particular way of speaking, walking and thinking so each of us has his or her own particular way of sinning. Don’t be surprised that you confess the same sins be surprised that you make no effort to change!
There are two things that the Church has long recommended as aids to changing, that is, growing in holiness: that we examine our conscience daily and that we go to confession regularly. There are many ways to examine your conscience (check the internet) but here is a simple one. Begin by counting your blessings and give thanks for them. Then ask how yourself whether you have been a blessing that day? How have you treated God and the things of God, how you have treated your neighbour and your neighbour’s property? Was there anything good that you could have done, or done better, but didn’t? Then ask God’s forgiveness for your failings and resolve to do better. The bare minimum required of a Catholic, apart from Sunday Mass, is to confess once a year and receive Holy Communion in a state of grace, that is, without a mortal sin on ones conscience. Once a year is the bare minimum. A good average is about once a month. It does not take long but then the tax collector’s prayer was short and he went away right with God.
Now is the time to appeal to God’s mercy and avail of it. Now is the time to form and check our consciences and make the changes we need to make so that we grow in holiness. Let us not be like the Pharisee and assume we are right with God. Let us be like the tax collector and cast ourselves on the Lord’s mercy. We will find that He has a warm embrace.