At rights with God
(Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14, 16-19; Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14)
Introduction to Mass
Today's readings focus our attention on one of the paradoxes of the gospel message. God calls us to holiness and a vision of moral life which is often an uphill struggle. But the heart of Christ's notion of holiness is the realisation that we're all sinners in need of God's mercy. He often warned people against seeing themselves as self-made paragons who can stand before God and boast about their spiritual achievements.
To begin Mass, as always we reflect on our own faults and weaknesses and ask God to forgive us and to strengthen the life of his spirit in us.
The parable that Jesus tells in today's gospel reading reveals something very important about God's character and outlook. It reveals that God is biased in favour of the person who admits the truth about his or her sinfulness and moral weakness, while he's alienated from people who congratulate themselves on their moral achievements and look down on others.
This bias in God's outlook is important because, as the first reading says, God is our judge. Saint Paul's remarks, in the second reading - his well-known saying about having run the race and having fought the good fight - also assume that our life on earth is in some sense a time of testing, and that we'll face God's judgement at the end of it.
The time will come when each of us will have to give an account of our lives to God and he'll examine the evidence to see what progress we've made towards holiness. And what Jesus' parable tells us is that as far as God is concerned, a willingness to admit faults, weaknesses, selfish motives and to acknowledge our need for God's mercy, is much closer to the heart of real holiness than a perfect, faultless, upright life which is spoiled by being infected with pride and spiritual snobbery.
Jesus isn't saying that it's all right to wallow in our selfishness, of course. The character of the tax-collector in his parable isn't supposed to give a sort of permission to aim low in our moral and spiritual efforts. If we take the qualities mentioned by the Pharisee, for example, Jesus would agree that it's better to be generous than grasping, it's better to treat people justly than unjustly, to be faithful than to commit adultery.
But for all his virtue the great fault of the Pharisee, which alienates him from God, is his self-deception. He imagines, or he convinces himself, that he's free from sin.
Without any sense of irony he thanks God that he isn't "like the rest of mankind" - whereas the beginning of genuine holiness, in the Christian understanding, is precisely the realisation that we are "like the rest of mankind", that we are all prone to selfish, grasping, unjust, adulterous motives, and it's more important to ask God's mercy for our weakness than to try to fashion a self-image of great moral strength.
Saint Augustine, who had plenty of sins of his own to reflect on, went as far as saying that God will even use our sinfulness and our selfishness to bring us to the point of realising the truth about ourselves, which is in many ways the point of conversion.
Augustine was someone who followed a long and complicated path to God, with a lot of diversions on the way. When he looked back over that path, he felt that there was a paradox in his self-indulgent behaviour: that although sinful actions are always wrong and harmful, to ourselves and to others, and always to be avoided, nevertheless our experience of sin often gives us a deeper appreciation of God's love and mercy.
When he eventually turned to God, Augustine had a much more vivid sense of having been saved by God precisely because he could look back and remember the time when he was so far away from God. And of course his honest memory of his own weaknesses gave him a deeper love and mercy towards others: as long as he could remember his own past, he could never fall into the Pharisee's attitude of "despising" the rest of mankind.
So in a sense today's readings are about the distinctive character of Christian holiness.
It's true that we're all called to be saints, we're all called to perfection. But for the followers of Christ, holiness and perfection have got far more to do with humility and repentance and realising that we all stand in need of God's mercy, rather than building an ivory tower for ourselves, which always has something very untruthful and deceptive about it.
That's the message that Saint Luke wants to communicate to us with his contrast between the boastful, self-sufficent Pharisee and the tax collector, praying for God's forgiveness and help.