In this week's Gospel, Jesus speaks of two men - a tax collector and a Pharisee.
The parable begins in the following way: "Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else."
The Pharisee, convinced of his right standing with God, says confidently, "O God I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity." The tax collector humbles himself and says, "O God be merciful to me a sinner."
Jesus makes it clear that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, goes away with a heart that is clean before God.
What is Jesus telling us? I think he is telling us to continually humble ourselves. He is telling us to be on guard against thinking that we have all the answers. He is telling us to be careful not to become elitist and think we are better than others.
The Pharisees were the religious leaders. They prayed often. They were devout. But they were self-righteous. They were full of their own ideas about God and others and they refused to surrender to Jesus and his living word.
What about you and me? Do we sometimes imagine that God is limited to our own ideas about him? Do we imagine that our judgments about other people are always accurate? Do we sometimes despise others because they relate to God differently than we do?
This is shaky ground for a Christian. When we think this way, we are moving into the realm of the Pharisee.
The great doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, taught that our own ideas about God are often the greatest impediment to our spiritual growth. The spiritual life is a journey and we must learn to let go and trust the Lord in ever-deepening ways. Meditate on those poor Pharisees.
When God met them face to face in the person of Jesus they utterly rejected him. Why? Because they had invented a God in their own minds who was just like them. Harsh. Elitist. Judgmental. Proud.
This is a real danger to all of us. St. Augustine taught that Christianity is "the healing of the heart's eye through which we see God." We need to pray for the healing of our heart's eye so we can "see God" as he really is.
Then we will see that the heart of God is compassion and mercy and only then will we see the beauty of every human being we encounter even when they are different than us.
Now look at the tax collector in the parable. The Jewish people despised tax collectors at that time because they worked for the Roman government. They were considered scum of the earth.
Yet Jesus makes him the hero of the parable. Why? Because he humbled himself before God and asked for mercy.
Here is the key that unlocks our heart and opens it to God - the cry of the human heart for mercy. Mercy is the unearned, unmerited saving love of God poured into our lives. Jesus is the merciful one. All who humbly acknowledge their need of him will experience his reign of love.
Pride locks the door to Jesus. Humility opens the door wide.
Yesterday I was having breakfast with a friend of mine who is a Secular Franciscan.
My friend shared this prayer of St. Francis: "May I feel in my heart, as much as possible, that abundant love with which you, the Son of God, were inflamed."
A prayer like this repeated with a sincere and open heart can transform us all. Then, like Francis, we can answer the call to rebuild the Church today.
Humility. Love. Compassion. Mercy. May this be the path we walk.