by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The tax-collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed: “God, have mercy on me a sinner!” ‘This man, I tell you,’ said Jesus, ‘went home again at rights with God.’ Luke 18, 9-14

In this day and age, Catholic churches don’t exactly suffer from over-crowding at vigil Masses on Saturdays and throughout Sundays. Of those who do participate, many, especially the men, seem to favour the back half of the church. One could be forgiven for thinking that the back pews have been turned into a comfortable location for “self-confessed sinners”. I wonder if this is a result of misinterpreting the message of today’s gospel story of the Pharisee and the publican (tax-collector). Are the back seats now a reserved section for would-be publicans, proudly boasting about their sinfulness? Perhaps we have forgotten what it was in Jesus’ story that made the Pharisee the villain and the tax-collector the hero.

The main difference between the two characters in today’s story is that the Pharisee slipped into comparing himself with others, measuring his conduct against that of “other men”, while the tax collector just looked at himself in the mirror, as he stood before God. We all know that honest self-appraisal can be commendable and beneficial. However, it was not self-appraisal that landed the Pharisee in trouble. We have a saying in English: “All comparisons are odious”. It was the Pharisee’s resorting to distasteful comparisons in the hearing of others in the temple that showed him up in his true colours.

And isn’t that the mistake of those who insist of gravitating to the back pews in our churches today? Are they not making secret comparisons of themselves with those who regularly line up at the front? In doing so, they lose the kind of impact that the tax-collector in the original story has on us. He didn’t look to see who else was in the temple. He looked at himself and at the goodness and mercy of God, and that was all that mattered.

Today’s gospel story finds echoes in the Zen Buddhist story of the university professor who approached the holy man wanting to learn how to find true holiness. The guru invited the professor to share a cup of tea. Having filled the visitor’s cup, he kept on pouring. The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!”, he called. “The tea is spilling over. The cup can’t hold any more.”
“Like this cup”, the master said, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I teach you holiness and wisdom until you first empty your cup. Come back when your cup is empty.”

In today’s second reading, we are given another example of self-appraisal. Paul uses the image of an athlete’s performance to describe how he has lived his life from the time of his conversion: “I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance and I have kept the faith. Now there is waiting for me the prize of victory” (2 Timothy 4, 7-8). Like athletes who rate their event performances against what they know has been their “personal best”, Paul measures the way he has lived in terms of personal integrity. He does not compare his faith life with that of anybody else. Observers and commentators might do that. But Paul does not stoop to comparisons with anyone. He speaks as though there have been no others in the race he has run.

Paul’s statement is worthy of further reflection because it challenges us to stop and face the reality of our own lives as Christians. The gospel story has made the point that comparing ourselves with others is pointless and counter-productive. It is our own personal integrity or lack of it that we need to consider. And what if our own self-appraisals lead us to the accurate conclusion that we are faithful, sincere, generous-hearted and even loveable? Isn’t it true that many of us have been conditioned to down grade ourselves?

We have all come across people who carry the burden of low self-esteem. We have met barbers, bishops, bus-drivers and barmaids who suffer from this affliction. They cannot help running themselves down. They conduct themselves as though that is what is expected of them. It has nothing to do with the Gospel, for it stops people from ever accepting that they are loved, even by God. In fact it makes a mockery of the stance taken by the tax-collector in today’s gospel story. Those who keep running a measuring gauge over their flaws and failures end up struggling with all their relationships because they constantly see themselves as inadequate to manage anything and certainly unattractive to anyone. They are even ill-equipped to reflect healthily on their own sinfulness. They end up having hope in neither themselves nor God.

The only way into healthy Christian living and hope in God is to come to the realisation that God’s love can never be earned. It is already given to us free and unconditionally. We can’t attract God’s attention or favour by painting ourselves as helpless and hopeless or totally down-grading ourselves. Our self-disclosures of fragility, human weakness and personal sinfulness are meant to lead us to hope in a God who constantly loves us, who is always chasing after us, who has a deep respect for us and who places an adult confidence in us.

God has no need and no desire to build a reputation for justice and mercy by pretending that we are worse than we really are or by nudging us to make declarations of that kind ourselves. Once we grasp that God is a God who extends a warm welcome to people like the tax-collector, there is no pressure on us to be anything other than totally honest in our self-appraisals. We might even admit that we have qualities that others actually like and appreciate. That would be a giant step in the right direction, wouldn’t it?