When I was in middle school, twelve for thirteen years old, I remember being very upset one day because a classmate was bragging about himself and his accomplishments. This boy was very popular, a good athlete, and well-liked by the girls. He often “held court” at the cool kids table in the cafeteria. We all wanted to be like him. I was upset because there was no way that I could measure up to him. I would never be that good at sports, that popular, or that successful with the girls. There was nothing I could do to change the situation. I was at best tolerated by the “in crowd” but was never made to feel like I belonged. I felt hopeless, and in comparison to that guy, a loser. Through tears, I told my father all about what this kid was saying and how I was feeling. My dad put his arm around me and said, “You can tell a lot about a guy by the way he talks. What he is saying is probably not true. But even if it is, why do you think he feels the need to tell others about it? If he is such a big shot, why does he have to draw attention to himself and put others down in the process? If he was secure about who he was, he would not have to try to impress anybody.” I’m not sure how much of what my dad said made sense to me at the time in my teenage angst, but it stuck with me.
Jesus makes a similar point in the Gospel parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. We can tell a lot about the inner disposition or attitude of someone by paying attention to his language – here, the way someone prays. Jesus tells this parable for us to examine what is going on in our hearts by paying attention to the way we pray, the way we talk to God. He is warning us against a self-righteous attitude, i.e., falling into the presumption that we are “justified” or “saved” by our “goodness”, good works, or that we have followed all the rules. Self-righteousness literally means that I’ve made myself right before God. This attitude of self-righteousness is a fundamental problem because we are justified by God’s mercy – his gift – and not by what we do. If we are not aware of our need for mercy, our need for salvation, we will not ask for it or be open to it in our heart. We can’t earn our salvation. We don’t deserve it by our own merits. We can’t save ourselves. We know that intellectually. We agree with that theological statement. But do we believe it in our hearts? The disposition of our heart is revealed by the words of our prayer and what we say about ourselves and others. The disposition of the heart determines our closeness to God, not how well we can follow the rules or fulfill the precepts of the law. The Pharisees considered themselves near to God and “set apart” from the rest of humanity because of the scrupulous way they kept the law. In the popular mentality, the Pharisees were the “in crowd” and everyone else were religious losers who had no hope for salvation. The tax collector was a public sinner, someone despised by the Jewish community – considered a traitor to race and nation – for working for the oppressive Roman regime. No Jew would consider a tax collector close to God. The Pharisees were presumed to be justified while the tax collector, an outcast, was presumed to be lost. But Jesus teaches in the parable that what matters for our justification is whether we recognize that we are sinners and ask for mercy. The Pharisee does not in his prayer see himself as sinful or express an awareness of his need for mercy. Rather, what he says is braggadocios, judgmental, and arrogant. What he is doing in this comparison with “the rest of humanity” is justifying himself to himself that he is not that bad; that he in fact, should be at the top of the list when it comes to salvation or nearness to God. The tax collector, on the other hand, makes no excuses for his behavior. He approaches the Lord with humility and contrition – bowing his head and beating his breast. He prays simply, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” No other words are needed. He approaches the Lord with poverty of spirit – an awareness of his total dependence on God. He has nothing to prove. There is no presumption of his place with God, so he stands off at a distance. The words of the tax collector in this parable have become a simple and succinct version of the act of contrition. So one of the ways we can look at the disposition of our heart is to look at the words we use when we go to confession – this sacrament that justifies or reconciles us with God when we have sinned. Hopefully, we all make regular use of the sacrament of confession. If we don’t, perhaps we are convinced of our own righteousness and don’t think we need God’s mercy. Pay attention to how you confess. Does it sound like the Pharisee? Do we feel that we need to tell the priest as part of our confession all the sins we don’t commit and at the same time tell him all the good things that we do? Often times we make excuses for our bad behavior or anger or resentment by listing the sins of others. If that is the case, then we are, like the Pharisee, not really praying to God but instead justifying ourself to ourself. “I’m basically a good person.” It is not just in confession, but how we talk about ourselves and think about ourselves and others. Like the school boy who felt the need to brag about himself or belittle others, such talk reveals a fundamental insecurity. Our security comes by being embraced and loved by God and knowing he loves us when we don’t deserve it – before we’ve done anything to “earn” it. If we want to make things right in our life and experience that security, we need to let God exalt us. And that only happens if we humbly recognize our need for God and his mercy and pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”