O God, be Merciful to Me a Sinner

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Observing other people can be a simple measure of how we’re doing. If we find we’re slacking, we can do something about it right away. And I bet encouraging retail sales is good for the economy. Advertisers are always suggesting how to spruce up our boring lives, so we don’t look like holdouts from decades past. We notice what people are wearing, what they’re saying, what they’re doing. We are inspired to get a haircut now and again, new shoes, a new look. We keep up with the latest in fashion and technology. We take note of where people go when they travel. We keep up with popular expressions and new words especially to add a touch of class or finesse. We snoop around their kitchens. We admire the artwork on their walls, the books on their shelves, the personal touches around the house. We will even mention how smart and sweet and remarkably talented their pets are. Now most of this is harmless banter and socializing. But making observations and comparisons give us incentive to better ourselves, and by bettering ourselves we can contribute to the betterment of society.

The Pharisee in today’s parable had to be a good man. If he was speaking the truth when he prayed to God in the temple, he would be an upstanding citizen in his community, someone his family would be proud of, someone others can look up to and count on. It would be unfair to write him off for simply listing his accomplishments. But Jesus observed his judgmental tone. He should have known better. The tax collector standing behind him was well aware of the huge difference between them. Everyone knew that Pharisees were supposed to be better than tax collectors on any given day. They studied the Law of Moses, they lived by a strict moral code, their word and example taught others to be useful citizens and commendable observers of the faith. What Jesus found wanting was this good man’s total disregard for what only God can do, which is, to bestow his righteousness upon us. Like the tax collector, we are more aware than anyone of our own failures and shortcomings. And when we stand before God’s penetrating gaze, there is nothing we can honestly boast of without first giving credit where credit is due. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It is a healthy dose of reality that sums up all we can really take credit for.

Which brings us to a most natural human tendency: to compare and contrast. People often admit in confession to being judgmental. I would say the tendency to compare and contrast is essentially not harmful. By it we gain knowledge and perspective. We can tell something is good or bad by comparing and contrasting it with what we already know to be good or bad. But even more important still, we should ask how do we use this new knowledge? Do we use it to do good or to do evil?

The Pharisee knew that he was more likely than the tax collector to observe the rules of fasting and tithing. But he could have used this knowledge to raise others up, to help them understand what he understood, to help them diminish their faults so they live more spiritually fulfilling lives. Instead, he used that knowledge to treat another with contempt, to disparage another even as he called on God, to distance himself from those God would have wanted to draw to himself, lest they weigh him down or diminish his standing. If God was concerned about our accomplishments, we should worry how high or low we end up in heaven. Will I sit closer to the bridegroom at the eternal wedding banquet? Will I have a better seat than the people I don’t like? Will I even get in to begin with?

In writing to Timothy, Paul reminds us we must face life’s trials and tribulations without fear. It doesn’t matter whether or not our friends support us in our moment of need. Rather, we forge ahead with confidence that God’s opinion matters more than anyone else’s. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.” The sacred author of the book of Sirach says as well that “the Lord God knows no favorites. But the one who serves God willingly is heard. … The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, … and the Lord will not delay.”

When we know the truth about ourselves, whether we have accomplished much or little in the eyes of others, we should remember that we have yet to stand before God and confess that we are sinners and unworthy servants. And when we can see others who struggle as we ourselves struggle, when we can acknowledge the goodness and mercy God has shown us, then we might be willing to withhold judgment and extend compassion instead to those on the margins, knowing that like them we are flawed, imperfect, sinful, knowing it is God alone who extends righteousness, God alone who justifies, God alone who raises us up and decides to make us worthy of himself. And like the tax collector we can declare in truth, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Rolo B Castillo © 2022

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