The theme in each of today’s readings, as I see it, is about the familiar Lenten call to “return to the Lord” and counsels humility and honesty as the attitude necessary to accomplish reconciliation. The words of the psalm refrain encourage us that God’s stance regarding our return is: “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.” Why would we hesitate to approach this God? As a matter of fact, the prophet Hosea reminds us that it is God who comes to us, longing for us, more than we can imagine. “Let us know, Hosea says, let us strive to know the Lord; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.” Having the confidence that God is always on our side can allow us to approach God, having made an honest assessment of our lives and with a humility that is willing and unafraid to speak the truth to the God of love and understanding. That is the message of the gospel this morning – the familiar story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We have probably all encountered people like the Pharisee who spends time thanking God that he is “not like the rest of humanity.” That arrogance is always off-putting. We hear only one simple sentence from the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” That’s all that is necessary.
A footnote: Many of us grew up interiorizing the notion that we needed to be perfect in order to garner God’s approval, God’s love. One of the best analogies I have found about this is the definition of sin as “missing the mark.” It speaks of the necessity of practice before one is able to hit the bull’s eye; no one expects that this will be the outcome of a first attempt – or of many attempts. It’s the same with us in our living. No matter our intention to “get it right the first time” we most often fail along the way. We need to remember that God is cheering us on from the sidelines and waiting for us to be content with our missteps as long as we keep trying. And God’s mercy, that fierce love that God holds for us, washes over us like rain as soon as we are willing to stand before this God in humility and truth.