Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on October 26 and 27, 2013 for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C at the 6:00PM (Vigil), 8:00AM and 5:30PM Masses
I bought a pressure washer recently. I wanted one so that I could clean my deck and siding. It works great, but I haven’t really used it yet except to clean a bird bath and some garden gnomes, despite having it for a month or so. Who knew there were some many makes and models to choose from: gas or electric; cold or hot water; residential, commercial, or industrial. Luckily I found a website that compared the prices and the pluses and minuses of all the available features of hundreds of different pressure washers so that I could buy the right one.
Our lives are filled with comparisons, aren’t they? We comparison shop, like I did with the pressure washer. We compare travel spots before going on vacation. We compare restaurants before going to dinner. We compare investments with our smartphone just like the talking baby does in those commercials before buying stocks. If the government fixes their healthcare website we will be able to compare health plans. Consumer Reports magazine compares thousands of products, listing what they find to be good and bad about each one, including pressure washers. They even compare bacon! Surprisingly eating bacon may be even worse than we thought; not only is bacon bad for us, but apparently some brands are worse than others! These types of comparisons are good for us because we want to purchase the right bacon or pressure washer, but today’s gospel teaches us that we should not compare ourselves to others, especially in regards to sin.
If we compare ourselves to others, we may become like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. The Pharisee is supposed to be praying, but all he is really doing is a plus and minus/good and bad comparison much like Consumer Reports, except that he is standing before God comparing himself to those he calls “the rest of humanity.” First he lists everyone else’s negatives, their sins of greed, dishonesty, and adultery, and then points out the tax collector as a specific example of someone that sins. Then he lists his own positives, fasting and paying tithes. Really? That’s all he’s got? You will notice that he does not talk about charity or any virtues, maybe because he doesn’t have any! He is so self-centered and so full of pride that Luke says in the gospel that he does not pray to God but instead “prays to himself.” Who prays to themself? He is so busy putting down others and lifting himself up that he is not looking up to God. The Pharisee has compared himself to everyone else in the world and has concluded that he is best of them all, and even tells God so! He certainly is not humble! But he soon will be because as Jesus says in the gospel, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled.”
The tax collector in Jesus’ parable is our model for dealing with sin in our lives. While he is praying he cannot look up to God either, but for a different reason. He is so sorry for his sins that he refuses to even lift his eyes to heaven. How different the tax collector is from the Pharisee! He does not compare himself to others, but simply looks at himself openly and honestly. He realizes that he is a lowly man in need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness and so he prays, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We too must admit that we are sinners, because the first step to correcting any problem is admitting that you indeed have a problem. We too must understand that when we sin we do not just make a bad choice, but we separate ourselves from God, and so we need to humbly turn to him to seek his forgiveness and repair our relationship with him. The tax collector understood this, repented accordingly, and Jesus said that he went home justified. But even greater things await him because as Jesus says in the gospel, “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Recently there was an interview with Pope Francis published in America magazine and several other Jesuit publications that the secular media quickly summarized and distributed all over the world. But most of the media outlets ignored the most profound statement that the pope made during the interview. The interviewer began his questioning by asking the pope, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis’ real name. The pope paused for a moment and then responded, “I am a sinner.” I am a sinner. What a profound statement for a pope to make! He did not say as the Pharisee would have, “Of all the billions of Catholics in the world, I am the greatest!” He did not say “I am the most influential world leader in all of social media,” as a recent study determined. But instead Pope Francis said, “I am a sinner,” identifying himself with the tax collector. He recognizes that even as a pope, when he compares himself to Christ, he is a lowly man in need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.
There is no need for any of us to compare ourselves to anyone else, because we are all equal in God’s eyes, and like the tax collector and even Pope Francis, we are all sinners who often separate ourselves from God. It has been said that the difference between a saint and a sinner is not the number and severity of the sins committed, but in the frequency in which one humbly turns to God in repentance. No matter how many times we must pray, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” he is ready to pour out his grace upon us. Jesus becomes in some ways like a pressure washer, removing the stain of sin from us and making us shiny and new again. If Consumer Reports ever has an issue devoted to sin eliminators, it would be their smallest issue ever. It would consist simply of a cover photo of Jesus, because he is the only way that we can eliminate sin from our lives. We cannot be holy on our own, we need his grace. But, just like my pressure washer, we must make use of his grace in order to become clean and free from sin. Fortunately for us it’s unlimited and available to us no matter how many times we need to make use of it.
So as we come forward to receive our Lord in the Eucharist today, let us humble ourselves like the tax collector and Pope Francis, making our prayer today, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Let us turn to the God whose grace cleanses our minds, hearts, and souls from the stain of sin and let us rejoice and be glad that his love, mercy, and forgiveness are available to us now and forever. Amen.