Catholic Liturgy for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Oct. 27, 2019. Luke 18:9-14. Theme: False Self Vs. Real Self
As the father of 6, grandfather of 5 and uncle to somewhere over 40 and counting, I have had the privilege of watching such an array of human beings grow from infants into children and then young adults. What a joyful marvel it is to see such a mix of personalities, each one uniquely created by God. And yet, there can a bit of sadness mixed into it every so often, when I see one or the other of them not appreciating or valuing the person that they are, but trying to re-invent themselves into someone whom they are not.
I suppose there is that a temptation within all of us to do the same thing, no matter who we are or what our age or status in life might be. We often seem to spend so much time and energy putting forth a false self to others. By the way we act or talk or dress we often try to refashion ourselves into an image of what we think will make us more pleasing, or more loveable, or more popular and admired.
We see this very same thing happening in today’s gospel. The Pharisee and tax collector both go to the Temple to pray. However, the Pharisee, instead of presenting himself humbly before God as he is, tries to put forth a false self who is perfect in every way. As ridiculous as it sounds, he has so fooled himself that he is trying to refashion himself even in God’s eyes in order to make himself look better than others!
On the other hand, the tax collector goes to the temple and prays honestly, with a sincere heart. Unlike the Pharisee, he does not try to conceal who he really is or put on a mask to hide his real self from God. He is able to see and accept himself clearly. Even his body language displays his repentance: he stands at a distance from the sanctuary and does not even raise his eyes to heaven.
The tax collector is not trying to fool God or put on false airs. He sees and accepts who he really is, which is the only way to making real and lasting changes in our lives. We see his sincerity and self-awareness in his prayer, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Therefore, God meets him where he is and lifts him up. The tax collector goes home justified.
And that brings us to the heart of this story that Jesus told which begins with the word “righteousness” and ends with the word “justified”, two important religious terms that actually mean the same thing. To be righteous or justified means that we have been freed from the guilt of our sins and have been put into a right relationship with God. It is a gift of grace that can only come about on God’s initiative. The only way we can truly hear and respond to this invitation is to first of all acknowledge that we need it! This is exactly what the tax collector did.
I think that the Lord is saying to us in this parable that we have nothing to fear in approaching him just as we are. In fact, this is the correct way to approach God. Otherwise we block him out from our lives because we are too full of ourselves. We have to humbly admit our own nothingness before God and our dependence on him like that tax collector. It is when we fully embrace and admit who we are, as we are, and realize our deep need for conversion of heart and mind, that we are ready to receive God’s grace.
As a way for us to respond to this invitation to be free from sin and live in a right relationship with God, Jesus has given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is a wonderful way to make this gospel become something real and meaningful in our lives and not just remain a story on a page of the Bible. In this sacrament, we have the opportunity to honestly examine and accept ourselves as we truly are, to admit our sinfulness, and to receive the grace of God in order to change. It is a beautiful way to acknowledge that we are sinners, to receive the Lord’s mercy and then to go home justified like that tax collector.