A Matter of Mercy

10-27-2019Pastoral ReflectionsRev. Brian F. Manning

We make side remarks about someone’s attitude. We think, “What an attitude. Why is he/she giving me that attitude? Who does he/she think they are with that attitude? Wow, does he/she have a great attitude about life. I wish I had that one’s attitude about it all.” On go the possible thoughts or remarks about attitude. We can simply conclude that attitude always matters in life. Attitude is indeed “where it’s at.” We recognize that attitude is far more than opinion, perspective, or viewpoint. It also becomes part of our physical being, such as posture or manners. Attitude, however, is still always far more than mere externals; it is a crucial quality for all of us. Our clothing at times can reflect an attitude, but attitude goes beyond clothes. You can get by with the wrong clothes at times, but never with the wrong attitude. Attitude makes the person, not clothing, because attitude has to do with the inside of us and affects our relationships with people. Attitude, so to speak, is how a person is before other people and with other people. Today’s scripture speaks about attitude and a person of faith.

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel passage presumes and expects God’s immediate favor and attention. After all, he sees himself as “special” because of his religious dedication and observance. In contrast, the tax collector expects nothing. He is most likely a thief and is openly a collaborator with the oppressors, the Romans. In this story Jesus is not praising one and condemning the other, rather he is contrasting the two men’s attitudes regarding trust.

Note how the Pharisee trusts only in himself and his own good works. He offers praise to God, but we realize that it is not praise directed to God, but his own self-congratulation. He asks God for nothing, because he figures he needs nothing; after all, he has on his own granted himself his own salvation. In strong contrast, the tax collector focuses solely on God in his plea for mercy. He clearly recognizes that he is a sinner and knows that he does not possess the power to save himself, and that only God does. And behold: God does just that.

Saint Paul’s boast in the second reading is far different from that of the Pharisee in the Gospel. Without hesitation Paul acknowledges from whom his strength has come and acknowledges that he will receive his “crown” not by means of his own merit, but by the saving grace of God. He boasts of God, not of himself. His attitude allows him to do this.

It is most worthwhile to reread the first sentence of today’s Gospel: It says: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” The two words “righteousness” and “despised” are very harsh terms. Jesus is singling out the proud and haughty in his own community, those who view themselves as “the saved.” The real questions are: Are they? Or are they guilty of the attitude of presumption, a very old-fashioned kind of sinful pride which is very much alive and well in our culture and society today? They presume that God’s mercy is their special private preserve to the exclusion of others—to the exclusion of “those people” i.e., “sinners.” Theirs is a country club style of faith, rather exclusive and select, or “entitled.” The Pharisee offers God thanks, and for good reason: he avoids sin of every sort—except the very critical and damning one, false pride. We learn in the story that salvation for the Pharisee is a matter of merit, but for the tax collector, it is a matter of mercy. Guess who is right? Jesus gives us the answer to this question. Not what we expect, but we know it is right.