Halloween is near. And perhaps it is a commentary on the nature of our culture that Halloween is celebrated by adults now as much as, if not more so, than by children.
In fact, I saw on TV news the other night that some convenience stores had put out signs saying that no one wearing a mask is allowed in the store. Obviously this is done for security reasons – if everyone wears a mask, how will you recognize the thieves?
People wear masks to hide their true identity – that’s true of robbers; that’s true of those going to a Halloween costume party. And, if we consider closely today’s gospel reading, it is also true of the Pharisee. He wears a mask of self-righteousness to hide his true identity. In his “praying” he has to diminish others so that he can elevate himself – at least in his own mind. “Thank God I am not like the rest – or even like this publican”.
It is important to notice that Jesus describes him as praying to himself – not by himself, but to himself. He is really not talking to God but himself – listing his virtues – and probably hoping that God will overhear and be pleased.
And while he lists his accomplishments, he really doesn’t reveal himself to God in prayer. And he probably thinks that his mask of self-righteousness can shield him from the gaze of God, God who can look through our masks and see us – as we truly are. He stands arrogantly before God, as if he was his equal. So full of himself is he that he has effectively hung out a “no vacancy” sign at the door of his heart. There is no room available for God.
The publican on the other hand with head bowed – and at a distance, for he knows he is where he perhaps does not belong, bears his soul. No mask. He comes before God as he truly is and acknowledges who he is. “This is me, Lord, a card carrying sinner. Have mercy”.
Jesus tells us that the publican went home “justified” which I think we can understand as meaning “set right by God” where as the Pharisee did not. Of course, the Pharisee would not even understand that he would need to be set right or “justified” by God because he was already self-justified which pretty much describes “self-righteousness”. And this “self-righteousness” is something that we all have to be on guard against – because it does seem to be an occupational hazard among religious people. At least that’s what a lot of less religious people keep on telling us, right? We understand that we are God’s chosen people – that’s what baptism makes us right? But too often we can distort that into acting like we are God’s favorite. The kid that tells his siblings that he is Dad’s favorite does not make living at home very easy does he? But, as we heard in the first reading, God does not play favorites.
At any rate, we should always be open to constructive criticism, even from our critics– at any rate, we should be as open as the publican who stood before God, naked and empty, and allowed God to fill his emptiness with his love and clothe him with his grace: as Jesus said, he went home justified, set right by God. The publican gives us all a lesson – we can all learn from him. Certainly, a Pharisee the likes of St. Paul certainly did, And remember he was a Pharisee of Pharisees – before Jesus knocked him off his horse. In today’s second reading he writes Timothy. It is obvious that he is at the end of his life and as he approaches death he humbly trusts that “the crown of righteousness” awaits him. And, of course, he says “he competed well, finished the race and kept the faith” – which means he did not neglect the moral law, nor did he not strive to grow in the virtues. And we should mention this lest we think that the Pharisee of today’s parable is being criticized for his virtuous living. It is his self-righteousness that gives virtue a bad name not the fact that he in fact lived a fairly upright life. In a real sense, we should be like that Pharisee – at least in our daily lives. In other words, not to be thieves, to pay our dues, etc. As witnesses to Christ, we certainly should not be like everybody else. But in the temple – that is, when we are before God, we should be like that publican – for the little good that we have done is entirely God’s gift.
Halloween – with its scary movies and ghosts and goblins – is perhaps our culture’s attempt to laugh at death. The hedonist will proclaim: “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. And as the liturgical year comes to an end soon, the Scriptures will turn our focus towards the end of time – and the end of our time – on this earth. This week we celebrate All Saints Day – and All Souls. And Scripture takes death a bit more seriously. The message of Scripture is “pray and fast for tomorrow we die”. We need to reflect on those “last things” that await us all. Those last things are death, judgment, heaven (and for most of us with a stop in purgatory) or hell. On judgment day we will stand before God without any mask – and so we would do well to learn to pray now like that publican. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”