When I lived in my country, there was a holy and friendly man in the neighborhood. His name was A. Every morning he got up early and went to church to pray, not only for his loved ones but also for those whom he had never met. Every evening his family got together to thank God for the blessings they had received during the day. All the people in the area loved him very much.
In that same town, there was a younger man, X, who was quite different from A. His family moved there some years before. As soon as they were there, people began hearing their quarrels. The peacefulness of life was cruelly robbed. X was often drinking, gambling, stealing, and being rude to people. Noone wanted to speak with him. They were afraid of bad reputations and consequences. Frankly speaking, X never did anything good to anyone here.
I don’t know how you would react in this situation, but me, living in this place with two opposite characters, I could not help but compare them. In your opinion, who would be better? Who would be more valuable? Who would deserve more respect? I think Mr. A would.
I told you these stories and ‘curiously’ asked you these questions just in order to confess to you that I startled when I heard what Jesus said in the Gospel of this 30th Sunday. He also told two similar stories like those of mine above, of course much better and profound, but He ‘took sides’ with the sinful tax collector and not with the holy-looking religious leader called Pharisee. I wondered why it was a little ‘bizarre’. And, I found two reasons. The first reason that made the bad tax collector suddenly become beautiful in the eyes of Jesus is that he “beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” (Lk 18:13). The second reason that made the ‘holy-looking’ Pharisee lose all of his merits is that he was one of those who “convinced of their own righteousness and despised others.” (Lk 18:9)
Fortunately, I never saw Mr. A despise Mr. X. Even more fortunately, you know what? One day, I saw X go to church, but in a pretty sneaky manner. Sneaky perhaps because he was afraid that people would see a bad man like him show up in such a place like… church. Yes, he came anyway. Not only that, he also asked to meet with the priest to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It seemed that he cried. Seeing him cry made me so happy!!! Unluckily, I did not have a chance to see how his life change since I had to leave for another town to live the very next day. However, I am told that he zealously participates in different humanitarian programs. Someone was surprised and asked him why he suddenly changed his behaviors, he gently replied: “My friend, in those days I forgot that I needed God, but fortunately God always remembered that I needed Him. I left him but He never left me. When I returned to Him, He threw his arms around me crying out of joy, not saying a word of criticism. What do you think I should do then?”
My friend, our Father always lovingly watches over each step we make although at times we run away from Him and make bad choices for our life. It’s Good News for us, isn’t it? Let’s enjoy it concretely as X has done. Ah, let’s not forget to remind ourselves that ultimately only God – the loving Father of all – can see the heart of each person. With that in mind, we will be more true to ourselves, more beautiful in the eyes of Jesus and more tolerant to brothers and sisters around us.
Joseph Viet, O.Carm.