Saturday, October 22, 2016

Caution: Work in progress


Before moving back to New Bedford in June, I was living for the last two years in New York City in the administrative offices of my Franciscan community. Living in New York was an interesting experience. Now, don’t worry, I remained true to our beloved Boston teams the whole time. But, it is a city of over 8 million people and with that comes an energy and diversity that was very exciting to be a part of. There is always something going on in New York – new buildings are constantly going up, there are endless artistic experience – the museums, the symphony, Broadway (and, yes, I even got to see Hamilton the musical!). It is a place of seemingly endless creativity. There’s even a saying that captures this spirit – locals like to say that New York will be a great city – if they ever finish it. It is a place where virtually every aspect of the city – the people, the places, the buildings, the communities – are constantly evolving and changing. It is an endless work in progress.

Our Gospel today wants to say something similar to us as it picks up from last week when Jesus encouraged us to “pray always without becoming weary.” If last week’s message was about being persistent in prayer, this week wants to remind us that even when it comes to prayer or any aspect of our faith life, it is okay to acknowledge that we are all still works in progress.

We’re given this story of two believers - the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both believe in the same God, both belong to the same religion and both worship in the same temple. But, at the end of the day, one of them goes home at peace with God and the other doesn’t.

The Pharisees were disciplined and devout men of religion. They were serious believers who committed themselves to a strict life of prayer and observance of God’s Law. In fact, they went far beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week even though they were only required to fast once a year. They gave tithes on all their income, not just parts of it. When the Pharisee said, “I am not like other people,” he wasn’t kidding. In fact, I bet few of us today could measure up to the external standards of the Pharisees. The Pharisees acted as though they were finished products. They had achieve religious perfection and should be admired and emulated for it. There was no room for them to grow in God’s plan. They were certain that they were better than the rest.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. They worked for the Romans occupiers, mixed with them and constantly handled their unclean money. They were said to be in a state of impurity. Tax collectors were considered public sinners on the highway to hell. But the tax collector in our story still hoped for salvation. He knew that God was not done with him yet and in humility placed himself in God’s tender care.

Sometimes, especially in the church, we can focus so much on doctrine and rules, that we begin to develop the impression that the church is meant only for the perfect. If that’s the case, I’ll be the first one making my way to the door. Pope Francis understands well our need to realize that we are not completed projects, but always on the road to closeness with God. In The Joy of the Gospel, he said for example, “The Eucharist…is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak…Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a [tollbooth]; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”

Simply doing all of the external prayers, devotions and other acts of faith we can muster doesn’t save anyone. God isn’t waiting for us to complete 1,000 rosaries, or donate $10,000, or receive the Eucharist 5,000 times. Now, these are all good things, but they are meant to lead us closer to God, they are not meant to be a checklist for salvation or a source of self-righteousness that we use to judge others. This is the key difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus told this parable because the Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, trusted in his need for God’s mercy. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knew that he was a work in progress and that God was the master craftsman who would help him become the person he was created to be.

Just like these men in our Gospel, we too have come to God’s house today to offer our prayers. We pray that our attitude be the same as the tax collector. God isn’t finished with us yet, either. He is still working on us. We are clay in the potter’s hands – and our prayer should be that he shapes us as He wants. We already know this prayer by heart: Thy will be done. Make of me what you will – not what I will. Be merciful to me, a sinner. I am a work in progress.

Give us the courage to admit that we still have some work to do. We need to work on our own pettiness, selfishness, anger, jealousy and hardness of heart. The times we slam the door when we leave the house after a fight with a spouse. Or refuse to answer the phone when you see that it’s your mother calling, wondering why you haven’t come home. Or, the gossip around the coffee machine.

Let us remember to bow our heads, fall to our knees, humble our hearts and whisper the words God is waiting to hear. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” I am a work in progress. You’re not finished with me yet. And I am grateful for your love, your compassion, your mercy and the time you give me to grow as your son, your daughter. This is the gift that God values above all others: the prayers of a humble person. Let us offer those prayers today and always until God is finished with us.

May the Lord give you peace.

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