It is a natural human trait to compare ourselves with others, to measure ourselves against our contemporaries or even to claim things which make us feel better about ourselves. It is in that comparison where we can be lead to a false sense of righteousness. Sometimes bumper stickers can reveal this comparative and maybe even self-righteous attitude with such slogans as; “My other car is a Prius,” or “My child is an honors student,” or “I’m vegan, what is your superpower?”
The Pharisee in today’s gospel may sound like someone who is just trying to have a good sense about himself; trying to shore up his confidence by taking stock in all the good he has done before God. And while all of the things he reports doing are signs of living a life of fidelity, the problem is that his pride causes him to compare himself. In his prayer he says, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18: 11).
Jesus tells us it is the penitent tax collector (read: “sinner”) who will be justified. He says, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 18: 14). This notion of humble submission before God is reflected in the Gospel and the first reading which tells us “the Lord, hears the cry of the oppressed. . . The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal” (Sir. 35: 21). The psalm, too, picks up on this theme of lowliness and humility. The psalmist tells us, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”
The challenge for us is to be like the penitent tax collector. We must acknowledge our own sinfulness, our poverty and our complicity with sin, and place ourselves before God’s mercy. We are made righteous by way of a humility that acknowledges our need for God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. We cannot be open to receiving those gifts from God if we are haughty in our sense of self and not humble. The example we are given is that of Jesus’ humble submission on the cross. It is only through such humility that God’s grace can “pierce the clouds” around our hearts. It’s only in acknowledging that all we have is a gift, that we can be moved to gratitude, and out of gratitude share that same love with others in celebration of God’s mercy. It is in that humility that we are opened up and made righteous.
And so we can ask ourselves, where is it that we protect ourselves by a comparison to others in order to shore up our own sense of self? Where do we need to humbly submit ourselves before God to receive mercy? Where are we called to reach out to others in mercy?