I sometimes find it helpful to my spiritual life to put myself in the place of the characters in our Lord’s parables. Of course, sometimes I put my wife in them as well. She’s 100% Irish, so I’ve lightheartedly renamed the Parable of the Persistent Widow, who nags the judge until she gets what she wants, the Parable of the Irish Woman.
One parable that I think teaches an important lesson to practicing Catholics is the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector found in Luke 18. The Pharisee’s prayer is a laundry list of things the Pharisee is doing for God, while the Tax Collector humbly prays, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The latter prayer was acceptable to God, the former wasn’t.
After awhile, we might think we’re in control of our own destiny. At least we’re on cruise control. We’ve accepted Jesus as the Lord of our lives. We’ve become part of His family through the waters of Baptism. We recognize that acceptance of Jesus means the acceptance of His one, true Church and all that entails. We know that we are called to lead lives worthy of our calling. The Lord summons us to obey the Ten Commandments and, even more, to live lives of charity, often expressed in terms of spiritual (e.g., teaching others the faith, praying for others) and corporal (e.g., feeding the hungry, caring for the sick) works of mercy.
At least to some extent, we can say that we’re doing all this. So, when we come before the Lord, it’s very easy–at least for me–to relate more to the Pharisee than to the Publican in the above parable: “Yeah, Lord, I know I’m not perfect, but gee, look at all this stuff I’ve done and am doing to help spread Your kingdom. I’m one of the good guys. In fact, I work for Catholics United for the Faith, an organization that’s staunchly loyal to the Pope. You can’t get much more Catholic than that. Amen.”
Doing good things out of a living faith, hope, and charity are good and necessary. But the more fundamental truth is that we’re all sinners and, without God’s grace, we’re lost. Recognizing and living this truth is humility. Deep down, we all know this truth, but sometimes our thought processes and actions say otherwise. Jesus calls to Himself the “little ones,” but part of us wants to be “big shots.”
I had a friend named Larry who in jest would pray, “Lord, help me find a parking spot . . . never mind, I just found one.” It’s good for me recall this joke from time to time as a reality check. The fact of the matter is that it’s not about me. I get in the way far more often than I help the cause, and when I’m able to help a little, it’s because I was open to God’s grace working in my life, at least imperfectly.
Pride leads us to take the credit for our successes and blessings and brings about an ungodly discouragement in times of failure. The truth is that none of us is quite ready for canonization. Sanctification is God’s work–not ours–accomplished throughout the course of our lives. Speaking for myself, He still has a ton of work to do.
Regardless of what might happen during the course of the day, we do well to conclude our day with the prayer of the tax collector: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
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