The Pharisee in today’s parable is wrapped up in himself. Jesus even portrays him as saying his prayer to himself. He was so grand in his own eyes that God couldn’t get a look in. He had become his own god.
It’s so easy to make religion, and even God, about yourself. It’s commonplace today to speak of religion as a private, purely personal, thing. Believe if you must, we are told: just keep it to yourself. But Christ’s Gospel cannot be kept cooped up or become the private domain of billions of isolated Christians. When I was in Cuba in the mid 1990’s, I recall how religious activities of any kind – not just worship, but RE, meetings, dramas, kindergarten – were only permitted by Castro so long as they stayed in the church building. There was to be no overspill into society lest religion would contaminate the purity of communist dogma and practice. Castro even had the arrogance to say that in keeping the Church cooped up in church buildings, it would die of its own accord. And yet, he had his spies in every parish activity (I met some of them), perhaps because deep down he knew that he could never destroy the Church, though the Church could certainly lead to his downfall.
And yet, had the Church, in Cuba or anywhere else, been full of people like that Pharisee, Castro could easily have had his wish for the Church to die. For if religion is closed in on itself, if it is only about me, my religious practice, my strongly held views, my version of God, Christ, Gospel or Church, then it will all come tumbling down because it is like the house built on the shifting sands of the individual human ego.
But it is not all about me. As the tax collector teaches us, it is all about God, the real God, not the one I imagine; it is about the real, living Christ, not the papier mâché version I make of Him; it is about the real Gospel and Church, not my own personal editions of them to suit myself or the times in which I live. While the Pharisee’s prayer goes no further than the fake God in his own head, the tax collector’s prayer pierces the heart of the living God. That’s because he had the humility to recognise that he had failed to obey the law of God in his life and so opened himself outwards in repentance to God. Jesus is here warning us to keep the true and living God, whom He has revealed to us, at the centre of our prayer, of our worship and of our life. He teaches us to lay aside self-importance and our high ideas about all and sundry, to leave to him the judgment about our virtues and vices (and those of others), and to stand with obedient, humble and reverent love before Him. Heaven is not gained by arguments and opinions or endless discussions and “positions” assumed on religious or moral matters, but by acting justly, loving tenderly and walking humbly with God.
One of the main reasons for the loss of a sense of mission in the Church today, including at individual and parish level, is precisely that we have become more preoccupied with ourselves and our own plans for the Church than with God and God’s plans. The world doesn’t need our plans. It needs God, and God needs us to proclaim Him to the world.
Take, for example, the attitude many can have to Holy Communion. Many receive it as if it were an individualistic “shot of Jesus in the arm” as a purely personal spiritual aid. But the truth is that Holy Communion is never just something we receive for our ownsakes. When Jesus commanded the Apostles to “do this in memory of me”, he didn’t just mean to sit around a table and mimic his words and actions, including Holy Communion. The institution of the Eucharist was not just some ritual. It was a ritual which anticipated and contained the reality of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection out of love for the salvation of all people. It is this which we are to do, together as a community, in memory of Jesus. When we receive Holy Communion, then, we are saying, “in your memory, Lord Jesus, and in the strength of your real presence and grace in this sacrament, I, too, together with my fellow believers, will in love suffer and even die to bring to others the Gospel of salvation through my words and example.” The Eucharist is the power, the engine, which drives the missionary work of each believer and of the whole Church.
This is why it is vital for any parish to be focused on the Eucharist. For our mission is no different than the mission of Jesus. If we want to share in his glory, we too will, indeed must, share in his sufferings and bring him out of the church building and out of our own minds and announce Him to others. At the end of Mass, the priest used to say in Latin, “ite missa est.” It basically means, go and become missionaries of the Gospel you have just heard and of the Christ you have just received in the sacrament. One of the more recent English translations in the missal is: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”
The droves of people who have left the Church in recent decades, and the many others who have never belonged to her, will not come to Her as the result of some clever plan or advertising campaign or series of lectures devised behind a desk. They will only come back if we who believe fulfil our mission to be witnesses in the power of the Eucharist to the person of Jesus, to his death and resurrection out of love for them and to his plan to unite them to Himself in and through His Body, the Church.
Hopefully, we are all well on our way as regards our own mission. But if we have lost our way or fallen by the way, where do we begin or begin again? Like charity, Christian mission begins at home.