What do you say to someone who wants you to know how good and holy they are? I remember an encounter several years ago with a visitor to the parish who approached me after mass to introduce himself. His first words to me conveyed the message that he was a devout Catholic, supporting his parish and coming to mass daily. I was a bit taken aback and wasn’t sure how he wanted me to respond except, perhaps, to commend him for his devoutness.
In the gospel, two men went into the temple to pray, Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee praised God but he also praised himself for being observant in religion and devout in praying. He thanks God he is not like that tax collector standing in the back silently praying. The tax collector simply prays the most beautiful prayer in all of scripture, “Have mercy on me God, for I am a sinner.”
The other prayer in scripture that is next in line for its beauty, power and simplicity is, “I do believe Lord, but help my unbelief.”
If we all just prayed these two phrases expressing an attitude of humility and vulnerability, how beautiful and honest our prayer would be. Jesus makes it crystal clear which of those two men in the temple praying: the tax collector left the temple justified and righteous, the Pharisee did not. The religious leader left his prayer time filled with himself, while the horrible tax collector left being filled with God’s mercy.
What truly matters is not that we go to mass each and every day, go to confession regularly, donate generously, follow all the practices, but that our religion makes us more humble and vulnerable before God and others. We are ALL sinners and have no need to compare ourselves with any other human being, especially when that comparison makes us more appealing. God sees things quite differently...