What is it about the tax collector that Jesus likes? Especially, since there is a pharisee also in the story that, by all accounts, seems to be a good person. Affirming his own virtue and holiness, the pharisee, prays, thank you [Lord] that I am not like the rest of [these sinners]; greedy and dishonest… or even like this tax collector.
But the tax collector’s prayer to God is very different, he prays, O God be merciful to me a sinner. The tax collector admits his struggle with sin. He knows that he has done wrong. It seems to me that the difference between these two men, is that the pharisee has lost his need for God. The pharisee believes himself to be without fault, no longer a sinner, and therefore no longer in need of God’s mercy. The tax collector, however, is very aware of his need for God’s mercy. And so he asks for it. He asks God to be merciful towards him. O God be merciful to me a sinner!
Pope Francis is for us today a great icon of the Heavenly Father’s mercy. But the reason he is an icon of mercy, I think, is precisely because he knows of his need for God’s tender love in his life. “Pope Francis said he still sins, and goes to confession every 15 or 20 days, ‘because [he] needs to feel that God’s mercy is still upon [him]’” (CNA). “‘I am a sinner’ says Pope Francis, ‘I feel sinful. I am sure of it,’ but ‘I am a forgiven man. God has looked on me with mercy and forgiven me’” (CNA). Pope Francis’ prayer is the same as the tax collector. He recognizes his continued need for God’s mercy and asks God for it constantly.
The call for all of us this weekend is to imitate the tax collector’s prayer: Be merciful to us, O God, for we are sinners. “We are weak human beings, and God knows it”. But do we know it? Or, do we fall into the trap of the tax collector and find ourselves saying, “I don’t need God’s mercy, I’m a pretty good person. I haven’t committed any serious sin.” This mentality, that all of us can fall into, is the same one that Jesus wants to change in the pharisee. Jesus is saying to all of us here: Don’t be afraid of your sinfulness. Yes you are weak. But, “I love you; I have given my life to save you; and now I am living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you from your sins”. Jesus wants us to acknowledge our need for him.
How do we do this? Perhaps, the most obvious answer is the hardest: Recommit to the practice of going to Confession. These are the moments that we in a very concrete way imitate the tax collector. We bring to the priest, those areas in our lives that we know need to change. Going to confession is putting our trust in God because it allows us to see ourselves as God sees us; as his beloved children. Going to confession is the moment we say, “God I need you. Help me overcome this sin. Help me, to remember your love in my life. Help me to forgive others as you forgive me.”
Confession is also a practice of expanding our own hearts. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisee. Since the pharisee could not see his need for God, he also judged very harshly that tax collector and has closed off his heart to him. But, one who encounters the love of God, instead becomes a conduit of His mercy. For us, the practice of going to confession is an encounter of God’s profound love for us that we begin to love as Christ loves.
One of the best example of this comes from one of my favorite movies, les miserables. There is a beautiful scene between a Bishop and a thief. The scene begins with soldiers bringing to the Bishop the thief who has stolen some silver. The soldiers are expecting the Bishop to send the thief back to jail. But the bishop says, “no, he’s correct. I gave him that silver.” The scene ends with the Bishop saying to the thief, “But remember this my brother, see in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver, to become an honest man. God has raised you, my brother, out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.” The rest of the movie is the story of how this man, the ex-thief, shares God’s love with others.
For me personally, when I watch that scene, the Bishop reminds me of Pope Francis. Because of the bishop’s confidence in God’s love, he is able to bring a struggling soul back to Christ. This is how we should strive to live our lives. To remember our need for Christ’s mercy and our call to love as he loves.
Our year for celebrating God’s mercy will conclude in November. If it has been awhile since you have gone to confession, I urge you to go. It is not the sacrament of condemnation, it is the sacrament of God’s love for you. So as we prepare to receive the Eucharist today, let us reflect on this prayer of repentance from Pope Francis, “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again Lord. Take me once more into your redeeming embrace”.