Did you notice the trap in today’s gospel? As is usual with his parables, Jesus always gives us more than what is on the surface.
It all seems pretty straightforward. Jesus gives us the figures of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Neither of them can see the big picture, like we can. The Pharisee thinks he is the winner, but he is clearly the loser. The tax collector thinks he is the loser, but he is clearly the winner. And the Pharisee comes across as smarmy, because he looks down on the tax collector.
And so when I read this I think: what an awful bloke the Pharisee is. Thank God I am not like the Pharisee. But as soon as I say that, I am. As soon as I say that, I run foul of the parable itself. In turning the Pharisee into the tax collector, I become the Pharisee. I end up condemning myself.
And isn’t this just such an easy trap to fall into. It is easy to moralistic when it comes to other people’s lives. It is so easy to feel superior. Indeed, one of my major talents is winning fictional arguments in my head against other people.
But what I have noticed when it comes to these heated arguments in my head, is that they are definitely more heat than argument. There is a very slippery slope to playing the man not the ball. And it is not even playing the man, it is usually just a caricature of someone. But it is so easy to get personal, get nasty about some politician who has done something awful, or some other driver who clearly is not thinking about anyone else on the road, or some…and so on. It is so easy not to give the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, it is so easy to slip from the matter at hand to personal judgment. From: they did this which does not suit me, to: this person is objectively the worst person who ever existed.
But the gospel is quite clear: Jesus is talking to people who think that they are perfect in front of God, that they can perfect themselves without God’s help, and people who therefore look down on others. This is perhaps the first lesson of the parable: as soon as I look down on someone, I am forgetting my own blind spots. I am assuming I am perfect in some way, no matter how small. That I have no room for improvement even if only in some small part of my life.
More than that, though, despising others shows a fundamental lack of imagination. In our second reading today, St Paul is summing up his life. Each one of us could do something similar, maybe not with the same answers, but we could do the same thing. Each one of us can look on our lives and recount what we have aimed at, what we have missed, what was worth pursuing, what was not, what still holds meaning, what turned empty over time. And we all have close friends or family who have suffered deeply, who have made mistakes as a result, friends who, nevertheless, we would defend to the hilt. Each of us is not only part Pharisee but also part tax collector among many tax collectors. Bishop Barron often starts his homilies with hello fellow sinners. We each have moments when we or someone we love has not been able to raise our eyes to heaven because of shame. [Each one of us has beaten our breasts, even if only at the start of Mass just now.]
And that points to the next lesson of the gospel. If we all suffered like this or know someone who is or has, then we know that everyone will likely go through such a moment. I said, we all have people who have made mistakes through this, but people we would defend against anyone. But the question is: how do we really help these people? How do we really be of service when someone feels so down, so ashamed, so repentant? Well, the paradox is we have to become more like the Pharisee. Not in his arrogance, but in his observance of God’s Law. This is why the Pharisee is so wrong. The obedience to God’s Word is supposed to turn us into people of service, safe harbours for sinners who have recognised their fallenness and don’t know how to come back, how to stand up again, how to look up to God in hope. It’s fruit should be compassion not superiority.
A better model of is our Lady. While like the tax collector, she knows she is completely dependent on God, she also obedient to God’s law like the Pharisee. Moreover, she does not let humility get in the way of obedience. She is so humble that she accepts that God can make her the Mother of God, the greatest act of service to God ever.
So perhaps today we can pray not only for awareness of our failings, but more importantly an awareness of true context of such knowledge, namely, God’s love of us and our neighbours. May we look to Mary for the perfect balance. Suitably humble before God and suitably obedient to God’s Word, God’s commandments.
And in all these things, her first instinct is to praise God and then forget about herself and help others like Elizabeth.