Who am I? Am I good with a little bad or am I bad with a little good? Martin Luther in his radical vision of God, Church and man could never find a healthy balance in man’s relationship with God. He considered man completely corrupt. No doubts about it! He considered himself completely corrupt and therefore saw the world through the dark filter of his own illness. He was a man racked with guilt and looked at the rest of us as he would himself. The paradox is that it never dawned on him that a man could be made clean by admitting his sins and seeking God's forgiveness.
The Church’s treasure is that it always seems to take a more balanced approach. Yes, man has fallen, scrapped his knees and damaged the goods. But God's mold is not broken; we are not beyond repair. We are still beautiful, even with a few cuts and bruises. We are still beautiful, even with tears in our eyes. Maybe, even more! We will always be God’s children and so, we can still do much good. If not, then how could we ever follow the prophet’s request: “Come, let us return to the LORD, it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds. He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence.” (Hos 6:1)
This past Thursday I spent ten hours listening to confessions of many High School students. I could see in each one of them, in their eyes, the shame of their sins and the devastating pain it had caused them and, at times, their families. But through the tears and regrets there was much beauty – the beauty of a soul returning to the Lord. How the Lord alone can wipe away tears and heal broken hearts. His words, not mine, flow from the mouth of the Confessor. His compassion, not mine, is abundant, overflowing, healing and life generating. It is true! “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6).
It is a fine line, a balancing act, to have a proper image of oneself. The Lord reminds us in today’s Gospel how we should present ourselves.
“The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” My internal pride immediately turns outwards, towards others. I compare myself to others. And most of the time, I come out ahead! But I fool myself. I am no better than anyone. For if I was, I would not be in need a Savior. Every sin is a sin, a separation from my Lord and God. Like it or not. Every sin is a thorn in Christ’s crown of suffering. The Pharisee’s pride will take him so far as to reject the one he pray’s to. In fact, it is not God that he directs his prayers to, but to the only one that could ever be above God: himself. The Pharisee took up his position – that is, he raises himself above the rest by stepping on the rest.
“The Tax Collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven…O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The Lord had heard many confessions. He knew. Not too long ago I asked the facilities manager to decorate a bit more the confessional room. It was too plain for me. She asked me, “Why? After all, people come in always looking down.” How often have I had to tell a penitent to raise their head and look at me? It is important. It is important to let them know that they are human, with a face and a voice; that they are loved and have already received grace and forgiveness. “For everyone who humbles himself” will always make it to Confession, and will be exalted! But everyone who exalts himself will not, and will end up being humbled.
The good know they are bad. And the bad think they are good! The paradox of Christ and the paradox of our lives and lies!