When I was living in Mexico a few years ago, the following encounter was not uncommon when I met people living in the streets. At times we would meet people who had a serious injury, a large cut or broken bone, for example. After just a brief look it was clear that this individual needed to see a doctor otherwise there was no hope that they would get better. We would always tell the person this fact, and explain that we would take them and cover the expenses. The strange thing is that some would refuse to allow us to bring us to the hospital. They would tell us that their injury was not that bad and that they would get better on their own. I was reminded of these experiences when I was reflecting on the reading of today. These people never accepted the severity of their wound and as a result, they could not be helped to find healing. A similar dynamic is at play in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
In this parable we meet two people who respond very differently to the reality of sin in their lives. The Pharisee and the tax collector were in stark contrast in the way they viewed their own sinfulness. One message of the parable is straightforward: each of us, without exception, is in need of God’s mercy. Taking as an analogy my experience in Mexico, we could say that each of us is seriously wounded as a result of sin and we require God’s healing. But here’s the point: in order for God to heal us, we must first recognize that we are wounded and ask for His help. Just as we could not force anyone to go to the hospital, God cannot force His mercy on those who do not think they need it. The Pharisee and tax collector were both sinners. The Pharisee is at least guilty of the sin of pride and despising others. Quite probably the sins of the tax collector were greater. He was cooperating with a foreign oppressor and had stolen from his countrymen. The way the two see the reality of sin in their lives makes all the difference. The Pharisee is convinced that he is not in need of God’s forgiveness because he follows the law perfectly; he is blind to the severity of his wound and therefore does not ask God for healing. The tax collector, on the other hand, is well aware of his need for God’s mercy and calls on God for healing. At the end of the day it is the tax collector and not the Pharisee who is made right with God. This is all because the two men respond in a very different way to the reality of sin in their life.
In our own life, we can easily downplay the severity of sin. It is easy to forget the wide-ranging effects of our own sins. None of us would go as far as the attitude of the Pharisee, but isn’t it easy to think along these lines, “in comparison to other people my sins are not that bad … I haven’t robbed a bank or killed anyone!”? Indeed, some sins are more serious than others. We should not, however, brush off our sins as “no big deal”. Often the full effects of our sin are hidden from us. Let me illustrate this with a story. Last week I was visiting my family was getting ready to return to St. Matthew’s as it was getting late. As I gathered my things from the table where I had placed them when I came in, I noticed that my keys were missing. At first I was calm and I started to search under some other items on the table. As time went on I became more frantic. These weren't just any keys, these were the keys to the Church and the School! I knew if I lost them it would be bad news. My search became more serious. I called everyone who was at the dinner to see if they had taken them by mistake. I started to search with a flashlight down the heating ducts. After an hour of searching I had just about given up hope when I saw a large bowl full of decorations sitting on another table. I figured it was worth a shot. I started digging my hand into the bowl and low and behold … my keys were there! At that very moment a thought struck me: my niece! I have a five year old niece and though I couldn't prove it, I had a sneaky suspicion that she was responsible for hiding my keys. The next day, my niece was asked if she had hidden my keys. Her response: “aahhhhhh yes”. Why did she do it? “I was trying to be sneaky”, she said. This story illustrates well what happens when we sin. Like my niece, we know – at least to some extent - that what we are doing is wrong. At the same time we are not usually aware of the full effects of our actions. My niece had no way of knowing much stress her action would cause me or what would happen if the keys went missing altogether. She was just trying to be sneaky! Likewise when we sin we forget that it always hurts us, others and our relationship with God. The full consequences of our sins are often hidden from us. As a result, we can tend to downplay the severity of sin in our life.
After recognizing the wounds our sins cause, it is crucial that we trust in God’s mercy and pass this mercy onto others. A fundamental Christian attitude is to recognize that we are sinners in need of Gods mercy and that we need to spread this mercy to others. This message, which is at the heart of the parable in today’s gospel is expressed strongly in the message and devotion of. This devotion spread particularly through the writings of the Polish nun, Saint Faustina Kowalska. In the 1930’s she wrote a diary of about 600 pages chronicling revelations she had received from Jesus about God’s mercy. The message of Divine Mercy was not all together new, but rather a powerful reminder. Through St. Faustina, Jesus wanted to remind the world that His mercy is always greater than our sins so long as we call upon Him in trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us onto other. In the parable we heard today, we have to avoid thinking that the Pharisee is the villain and the tax collector is the hero. The hero of the parable is God and His mercy. For those to whom Jesus initially told this parable, it was shocking to think that this tax collector could return home justified. The one thing he did right was call on God’s mercy. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was blind to his need for God’s mercy. In addition to not asking for mercy, he did not show mercy to others. Instead he judged and despised the tax collector. The message of Divine Mercy as promoted by St. Faustina can summarized just by remembering “A-B-C”. A: Ask for God’s Mercy. God wants us to approach Him in prayer, asking for mercy for our sins and that His mercy flows over the whole world. B: Be merciful. God wants us to show mercy and forgiveness to others. C: Completely trust Jesus. God wants us to know that the graces of His mercy are dependent only upon our trust. The more we trust Jesus, the more mercy we receive. The Divine Mercy message sums up wonderfully the fundamental Christian attitude promoted by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and we need to spread this mercy to others.
Going back to my experience in Mexico, it was always sad when people refused to recognize the extent of their injuries and accept help. Their continued suffering seemed so senseless. Let us not make the same mistake in our spiritual life by shutting ourselves off from God’s mercy by not recognizing our need for it. Remember that allowing the healing rays of God’s mercy to enter our souls wounded by sin is as simple as A-B-C: A) ask for God’s Mercy, B) be merciful and c) completely trust Jesus.