In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector the Pharisee thanks God for making him better than others, while the Tax Collector simply asks God’s mercy.
A modern version of the Story might be something like this: “A ‘good catholic’ stands at the front of the church and proclaims, ‘I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity; I know all the right words to use, all the right things to believe and not believe, all the rules for how everybody else has to live their lives; I have no doubts, and am certain that I know everything and that I am always right, and anybody who disagrees with me is wrong.’ Pope Francis stands at the back of the church and says, ‘O Lord, I am a sinner, I don’t know everything, I have doubts and questions, I am often unsure of what you call me to do, have mercy on me’. I tell you the latter went home justified, not the former.”
The Pharisee’s kind of prayer can often be self-righteous and self-serving – “I am so much better than those who do not agree with me or think as I do. I am much holier than they. I don’t need anything from God because I already know it all, and I have no doubts. I can judge others as less worthy than myself. I must protect Jesus from any who disagree with me, to keep out any who do not think as I do. I am a guardian of orthodoxy, vigorously attacking any who do not use my words and ideas. The rules of charity and respect for others do not apply to me because I am right and they are wrong.”
Recently Pope Frances warned against making the Catholic tradition into an ideology, reducing it to a complex of definitions, dogmas, and rules. He said this actually prevents folks from coming to know Jesus as mercy, love, forgiveness, tenderness. When a person reduces following Jesus to an ideology, they actually lose the faith by turning it into rules and ideas, and do not encounter the real Jesus. Instead of becoming disciples of Jesus, they become disciples of whoever’s ideology they are following. They set up many rules and conditions for anyone who would want to know their version of Jesus. He reminds us that this is not Jesus, but only the Jesus they create to make themselves feel powerful and in control.
Pope Francis unabashedly states publicly that he is a sinner and needs God’s mercy and forgiveness. He encourages us to see ourselves in the same way, and to rejoice that Jesus is always with us, reaching out to us, and offering us loving grace and support as we do our best to live a good life with whomever is in our life. He also says there is always some uncertainty in our efforts to find God. We cannot hide behind rules and dogmas because they are not God, but our own creation to make ourselves feel safe and comfortable. If we have all the answers, he says, this is proof that God is not with us. He says we have to leave room for the Lord not rely on our own certainties. We have to be humble and willing to let Jesus lead us. When we claim to have all the answers, we will find only a god that meets our standards, and so ignore the God who is.
He reminds us that we are all good people trying to do our best in life. Our life is not a scripted play with our roles written out for us, something often described as God’s plan for each of us. Francis reminds us that God’s will for us is a relationship that we work out with every choice we make, and that we are bound to make mistakes, and that Jesus is always with us inviting us to trust and move forward, continuing to do our best as we see it. Ideologists forget this, and see others simply as categories who have to fit into their ideology. They overlook the fact that that these are real people whose marriages have failed and who have tried again to find happiness and fulfillment, or whose lifestyles some ideologies have branded “intrinsically disordered”, to mention just a few. These are persons who are “consequences of a thought in the mind of God, important, necessary, none of whom is an accident”.
He reminds is that following Jesus is not a code of conduct and a book for doctrines and definitions. It is a Parable of a Loving Father who sends his Son to live and share his love for all of us. As his followers he calls us to reach out in love and caring to all who are in our life, and to let others reach out to us. Doing this does not involve demanding that folks accept our definitions and rules, but simply letting our prayerful relations with Jesus guide us through our days.
We cannot encounter Jesus only by thinking or using our mind. We also really have to be open to mystery and possibility, ready to take chances, always open to the possibility that we might be wrong. It is exciting to try to be open to Jesus and then learn from time to time that he is real, that he does walk with us and offer to guide us in our choices and actions, that we are not in any way alone. He leads us to see our life and everyone in it as ongoing revelations of goodness and mercy, not judgment and condemnation. Every day becomes an adventure in the mystery of Jesus among us.
Loving, accepting, and walking with others and Jesus comes first. All the other stuff comes later.
Just saying . . .