The Parable of the Parakeet and the Tax Collector

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Homily for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Scriptures for today's Mass)

Audio for homily

When I was a child I had a parakeet named Lucky.
In Lucky’s birdcage there was a little mirror,
in front of which Lucky would spend hours, looking at his own image
and chirping and carrying on a conversation with his own reflection.

And now, after all these years,
it occurs to me that Lucky was a Pharisee!
Recall how Jesus painted the scene here: 
The Pharisee took his place in the temple
and spoke this prayer to himself...

Like my Lucky, there was the Pharisee, standing in the temple,
enjoying his own reflection, admiring how good he was,
chirping about his own attributes,
imagining he was talking to God
but actually speaking his prayer to himself: 
like my little bird, in the temple of his cage,
delighting in his own image
- which he mistook for someone else.

If you’ve ever had a parakeet, you know that
Lucky was no more unusual among his kind
than was the Pharisee among people who pray -
and that would include you and me.

Sometimes, like the Pharisee, we measure our own goodness
by comparing our moral assets and liabilities to those of others.
The reasoning here goes something like this: 
“Well, I’m not perfect,
but I’m not as bad as… him, or her, or them.” 

Perhaps we imagine that at the last judgment
God will line up all of humanity on a spectrum ranging
from the greatest saints to the worst sinners
and we assume that certainly
we’ll be somewhere on the better end of that line.

The fallacy here is the notion that God judges me
by comparing my life to others'.
Not so.

Rather, God judges me
by comparing how I’ve loved to how he loves me;
by comparing me to his commandment
that I love the Lord above all things,
that I love my neighbor as myself;
that I be faithful to my own word and promises,
that I be pure in thought, word and deed,
that I tell the truth and act fairly and justly,
and that I reach out to those in need before satisfying my own wants.

Pharisees (and parakeets!) don’t get this
and Jesus is warning us here
not to look in the mirror to find God.

And what about the tax collector in the story?
Known as a sinner for cheating those from whom he collected revenue,
he couldn’t even raise his eyes to heaven to look for God,
so remorseful was he on account of his sins.

He probably couldn’t bear to look at himself in a mirror,
for fear of seeing what he had become.
But he's not speaking his prayer to himself.
He’s praying from his heart to God, asking forgiveness:
for all the ways he had failed to love his neighbor;
and for how he had failed to mirror in his own life
a reflection of God’s love for him.

If the Pharisee stood, preening, at the front of the temple
and the tax collector knelt in the shadows at the back,
I suspect most of us might find ourselves somewhere in the middle,
between the two.

Like the Pharisee we sometimes give ourselves a free pass
comparing our personal failings
to what we observe to be the more serious faults of others.

How often do we assess the state of our hearts before God by saying, 
“Well, I don’t have any really big sins.
 I mean, I’m not a drug dealer.  I don’t rob banks.” 

Well, you know what?
Most people on the face of the earth and through all of human history
never sold drugs or held up a bank.
That’s not the rule by which my life will be measured.
That I haven’t done those things
says nothing about the sins that are mine.
And I do have sins.

And I’ll be bold enough to suggest that you do, too.

So sometimes we might find ourselves in the shadows,
with the tax collector,
so regretful of our sins that we lose the capacity
to raise our eyes to see the face of God’s mercy:
to accept the forgiveness he never fails to offer us.

There are folks who think their sins so great
that they’re beyond God’s mercy.
But no one of the face of the earth,
through the whole of human history,
has ever been beyond the reach of God’s healing pardon.

• So we gather here each week,
not to look into a mirror and talk to ourselves,
not to judge the sins of others as worse than our own,
but to acknowledge, together, that each of us,
without exception,
stands in need of God’s mercy.

•We gather to search the depths of God’s Word
to learn how the Lord commands us to love one another
and how he offers to forgive us when we don’t.

•And we gather at this altar, not to proclaim how great we are
but rather how grateful we are for the gift of Christ’s love,
offered first on the Cross and shared with us now
in communion with his Body and Blood at this holy Table.

May each of us go home from this temple today
justified not by the pride we take in our meager virtue
but humbled by the mercy of God
who loves and pardons sinners like ourselves.


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