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Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C
I want to tell you a story about two friends of mine, Al Dollar and Gordy Quarter. Now I call them both my friends, but let me show you why one of them means a little more to me than the other.
One day I picked up Al Dollar and Gordy Quarter and put them in my pocket. On the way to where I was going, I could hear them talking — I should say I heard Al talking. Dollar said, “Oh, Gordy, I don’t know why you hang around. You’re not worth anything. What can anyone buy for a quarter? You can’t buy a Sunday newspaper, a double-dip ice cream cone, a chocolate sundae, or watch a video. Gordy, you are hardly worth anything. Now take me. I’m worth 100 cents, and I can buy an old comic book, a strawberry soda, a ride maybe even two; why I can do anything that you can do four times better.”
Poor Gordy. He just fell farther and farther down in my pocket until he was right in the bottom corner. “What can you do, Gordy,” asked Al. Gordy very quietly said, “I’ll do whatever my friend asks me to do that only costs twenty-five cents.” “Ha, ha,” laughed Al, “you’ll probably spend the rest of your days in a pocket while I’m out seeing the world.”
Just then, we all three arrived where we were going, and I reached into my pocket, pulled out one of my friends, and put him into the slot on the telephone. That’s right, still deep in my pocket was the amazed and deflated friend, AL Dollar, and beginning his trip around the world was Gordy the Quarter.
Now Jesus once taught the same thing about people. He said that people who think too much about themselves usually get their feelings hurt. But people who think of others first, before themselves, will have many happy things happen to them. That’s the way it was with Al and Gordy. Al just thought about himself, and he’s still in my pocket. But Gordy only looked for ways to help others, and he’s on his way around the world.
You can tell this story to your parents. The same story is true of paper money. Did you know that when a bill becomes worn out, they burn them? Well, at the furnace, a twenty-dollar bill and a one-dollar bill were next to each other. The twenty said, “I had a good life. Sometimes I was taken to amusement parks and joined with friends at fine restaurants. I rode in taxis. I traveled to France and came back by way of England. It was a good life.” The one-dollar bill sadly responded, “well, for me, it was Church, Church, Church.” You can ask your parents to explain that one.
Of all the sports, baseball may be the most gentlemanly. You hear very little trash talking from teammates on one team about teammates on their rivals—except for the Yankees and Red Sox. Fans are something else, I think. People like to put down fans of another team. Of course, in other sports trash talk seems almost part of the sport itself. Think of hockey, basketball, boxing, and, perhaps most of all, wrestling.
Trash talking is a kind of social reinforcement. It’s about getting energy at the expense of the other person. “I’m going mop the floor with your measly body,” is just as much about building up my ego as dumping on the other person. Maybe we can tolerate this negative self-buildup in sports, but it doesn’t work elsewhere . . . in the family, or at work, or among friends.
But how does it work in the Temple? That’s the question Jesus raises this today. In the parable, Jesus tells two men enter the Temple. One moves right up to the front like he is pretty cool with God. In fact, his prayer is mostly about himself and all that he does for God. More pointedly, his prayer puts down the sinner who sits in the back of the Temple. “I thank you, God, that I’m not like this loser in the back.”
While he trash talks the tax collector to build himself up, in the end, it’s the man in the back who connects with God, far more than the self-congratulatory man in the front row.
From this, we learn two things. One, we learn about the kind of God Jesus is revealing, a God who looks beyond the structures of formal religion and devotion to see what makes people tick. God knows the difference between people who want to engage God’s love and those who think that God is a way for them to look good.
Secondly, we learn that we cannot go to God if we think we have finished work, so now we can congratulate ourselves. In one sense, Jesus’ parable is about who can belong in God’s house—we all can! But it is even more about how pride and self-satisfaction destroy our union with God. While the Pharisee is extolling his virtues, he is missing his own radical need for God. Whoever exalts himself will fail.
Why is this? Because we can never return to God all that we can or should. We are always inadequate before God. God knows this and accepts this. But when we get satisfied, righteous, and self-congratulatory, then we have presumed what must always come to us as sheer gift. It is not our job to make God a possession or achievement; rather, we have to receive God with hearts always open because only open hearts know their genuine need.
Catholicism is often accused of putting people on guilt trips. This is not true. Catholicism puts people on reality trips. Catholicism dares to speak about unpopular topics like sin. Catholicism dares to invite people to consider their own participation in sin and seek forgiveness. It asserts that our salvation is a process we are engaged in. We are being saved. Catholicism recognizes that as human beings, we are continually tempted to sin. Sometimes we give in to temptation. Our Church reminds us that the Lord was one of us. He experienced temptation, and, though He did not give in to temptation, He understands our need for mercy. He gives us the Sacrament of Mercy, Penance, because He wants His Mercy, not our guilt, to direct our lives.
Catholicism is not concerned with guilt. It is concerned with mercy. People are continually telling their priests how much they need the Mercy of God. They are realists. We all need the mercy of God. As we come to a deeper understanding of all that God has done for us, we also come to a deeper understanding of how much we need His mercy and forgiveness. Sometimes we read about great saints like St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and we are shocked that they and all the saints saw themselves as great sinners. The saints had a profound realization of the extent of God’s love for them, and the many times they have not returned His love. We are all called to be saints. We are called to holiness. If we strive to respond to the call to holiness, to sanctity, then we also must realize how much we need God’s mercy.
Today the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee leads us to the Pilgrim’s Prayer. The pilgrim’s prayer is both simple and profound. It is the prayer of the man in the back of the Temple who realized that he is totally dependent on God’s love, a love that he had often rejected. The pilgrim’s prayer is the prayer that we all need to say with our hearts throughout our day. The Pilgrim’s Prayer is: Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner.
In Paul’s words to Timothy, we might think he’s congratulating himself: “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” But he says this in connection with the ultimate act of humility that he contemplates: pouring out his life as an act of love, like a sacrificial cup of wine poured out in a ceremony. Paul isn’t self-satisfied; rather, Paul cannot wait to give it all. He is talking to build himself up, but not at the expense of anyone else.
It’s only when we know our fundamental needs and how much further we have to grow, it’s only then that we can lay aside the smugness and ego that can make us blind to others and even blind to God.