One time, I remember failing to make the cut in a school activity and feeling really bad that one of my friends did. I always thought I was better than he, and that made me feel worse.
I mentioned it to my mom and I can still remember her reply: “You’ll always be better than others in some things, and there will always be those who will be better than you at other things. Never compare yourself with others”. I never understood back then what she meant.
My competitive streak stayed with me pretty much throughout my childhood; until at one point I began feeling weary of being “on” all the time. For some reason, I started wanting a little more peace in my life; I wanted to be rid of my restlessness, so I decided to enter seminary.
I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being competitive; and I still don’t. Being competitive is a quality that serves one well in life. But I started getting tired of the anxiety, the tension, and the stress that came in its wake. I figured a more spiritual kind of life might rid me of these, would calm me down, and perhaps give my soul some peace.
Then in seminary I met Kenny Steckler, a good friend and classmate who’s now a priest as well. Unlike myself, I noticed Kenny was very pious and devout. He never seemed to doubt his faith or asked too many questions. He was very prayerful, and seemed quite at peace with himself. Every time I saw him in chapel during prayers and Mass, I found myself thinking, “Now why am I not like that? Why can’t I be more pious and devout and prayerful and holy like Kenny? Why does my mind seem to race to so many questions a mile a minute?”
I mentioned this to my spiritual director. “Why does Kenny seem to be so certain about his faith? Why does he seem so peaceful and content with his vocation? Why does my brain seem to want to deconstruct everything?” My spiritual director’s reply reminded me of my mother’s words years ago: “Don’t compare yourself with anyone. That’s not what you are. Just be yourself. God accepts you for that and loves you for it”.
By the time I was finishing my studies in seminary, the advice I got from my mother and my spiritual director began making sense.
Before God, I simply had to be myself.
The problem with the Pharisee in today’s gospel was not that he wasn’t all those things he said. He really was a good person. He wasn’t greedy, or dishonest or adulterous. He was obedient to God’s Laws and really did his best to be righteous. But he had two big problems. First he kept comparing himself to others. “I’m not like the rest of humanity”, he said. And second, he probably felt that he had to be “on” all the time. He had to constantly prove himself before God.
What an awful way to live! Comparing oneself with others makes a person either too puffed up with pride at being better than everyone else. Or it makes him disappointed and upset because he might not be as good as them.
A person who constantly compares himself with others will never be rid of the anxiety, tension and stress of feeling that he has to be constantly “on”. He will feel as if he has to prove himself all the time: to himself, to others, and even to God as the Pharisee in today’s reading does.
On the other hand, the tax collector wasn’t looking down on himself. We tend to forget that those words he utters really mean what they say. When he says, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”—he was simply acknowledging the fact that he was indeed one. The man was just being realistic. I think that sometimes, when we read this passage, we read it with the thought that the line made him somehow “holy”. Far from it. It simply made him real, and most of all, humble. Humility after all simply means being exactly the person that we actually are before God, no more and no less. Humble people are very realistic people.
Humility simply means accepting that life has its good days and bad days, and sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re not. And God knows and accepts that. We don’t need to put on a show for him, or wear masks to make us look good before him.
The biggest problem with the Pharisee was that he couldn’t be honest before God. He always had to be “on”.
One of the important messages we can draw from the gospel is that we can be ourselves before God. We don’t have to pretend to be who we aren’t; we don’t need to wear masks or put on a show. We can rest, feel at ease, and be free in his presence. It’s the Good News of our faith.
God is the one before whom all the tensions, anxieties, stress, and worries of daily life and work melt away and cease. When we come before him, we can take off our pretensions and our comparisons. We can simply be who we are and be confident that he loves us nonetheless.
We don’t have to prove anything before God. He does require us to obey his Law, but we don’t have to be all bent out of shape proving that we do, because God knows us through and through. This was what the tax-collector understood quite well, and what someone like the Pharisee would probably never get.