Like the balance of trade, and because we all fail here and there, we must do more than the Law requires
At the start of Mass we all have a moment to tell God we are sorry for being a sinner.
But, now, do we really think about our sins, or just wait to say the prayer? Recently, I’ve started the Penitential Rite with a small introduction on a theme from the daily readings and asking people to think about one aspect of our lives: without focus, it’s power can be lost.
Even without much reflection, it is a humbling moment to admit in the presence of everyone that “I am a sinner” and to ask for mercy. However, when we consciously think of a sin or two, the Penitential Rite has the power to transfer our behaviour in that area of our lives.
What strikes you about the Pharisee in the Gospel? Is it arrogance, is it judgemental attitude? On the judgemental attitude issue, let us assume a child molester is in the church… he has done his time and is now released. Would we be having similar thoughts to the Pharisee, or even shout out loud? Let’s not be too harsh on the Pharisee for that.
The arrogance is a problem: first because he is, and also because he is in the presence of God. Can any of us stand here and condemn others in the presence of God? Maybe at home or at work we get carried away with our own brilliance, surely not in church???
What does the Pharisee actually boast about… can we categorise it: “I am not…
1. grasping – means I don’t lose my friends;
2. unjust – means I don’t go to jail;
3. adulterous – means I don’t lose my family;
4. I fast twice a week – very good for my health;
5. I pay tithes on all I get – increases my status in the community.
What I see from this list, is a series of good things that primarily benefit himself. No doubt, all these things are good, in and of themselves, and benefit the community. But they are not an exhaustive list of what a good Pharisee or Christian should do: the law = the minimum we should do. And we all know, if you put in minimum effort, you get minimal results in life.
What was the Pharisee’s REAL intention doing all the things above? What’s our intention? As the First Reading reminds us, God does not look at our status in life =how important we are the eyes of others. When judging our actions, God always looks at our “intention”. For example, a mother stealing money from her husband’s pocket while he’s drunk, so she can take the child to hospital or school. However, like all examples, there are limits!
The means do not justify the end. The end is good: taking the child to school or hospital. But stealing is still wrong. However, the laws are all designed around the principle that life is more important than the law. So that, if someone is starving, then, according to Catholic Social Teaching, the excess food of another must be shared with that person at risk of dying.
Although the Tax Collector is doing a job that many felt make him a traitor to Israel, perhaps he is desperate and trying to feed family? The great sin blamed on Tax Collectors, at that time, was that they extorted more taxes than was legally required: they gave the legal requirement to the Government and pocketed the rest themselves= take advantage of the uneducated/ poor.
We don’t know how many good things the Tax Collector has done, just as we don’t know how many things the Pharisee has failed to do; eg. helping the widows, orphans and strangers. These three actions are far more important than all the laws the Pharisee said he did not break.
This reminds us that there is a hierarchy of laws, some laws are more important than others. For example: Pharisee says: “I thank you, God, that I’m not a speeding motorist, or stopping in no-standing places; I don’t chase women or use bad language like all the other road users; and particularly, that I am not like this reckless driver here who overtook me on a double line and was speeding to avoid other cars; I wash my car twice a week; I pay my insurance each year.”
Meanwhile, the speeding motorist tells God: “God, be merciful to me, a speeding motorist. I was frustrated by the idiot driving at 25km/hr in front of me, who caused some people to have accidents as they tried to go around him. Also, I don’t wash my car very often, not because I don’t appreciate what you have blessed me with, but because I’m busy looking after my wife and 5 kids. I also confess that I cheated on my insurance payment because my child was very sick and the money ran out; but I had to get to work or the family would go hungry.”
Pope Francis reminds us that we must be merciful, not gossiping or telling lies; we should make ourselves available for family gatherings; create opportunities for the youth; and we must respect the environment in big and small ways.
We are invited today to not compare ourselves to others who are more obvious sinners but to reflect deeply on our sins of omission. Perhaps we can now redo our Penitential Rite? …
By Gerard Conlan, OMI