In today’s Gospel reading (see http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102316.cfm ) Jesus tells his disciples a parable about humility. The parable is specifically addressed to people who think well of themselves and look down on others. The tax collector who knows of his own shortcomings and recognizes his own sinfulness is shown to be better than the Pharisee, an expert in the law who believes greatly in his own holiness.
Probably most of us do not think of ourselves as like the Pharisee, but I am guessing that for all but very few people, we have some area on our lives where self-righteousness and judgment easily take hold. Here is a simple example: when driving down the highway, if someone cuts me off, or passes narrowly in front of me, do I assume the worst about the driver–that he is a jerk, or irresponsible, or a terrible person? Imagine, though, that the driver is a husband to his pregnant wife, who is in labor in the passenger seat. How would that change our perceptions of his driving? Or perhaps we notice that the driver is a very short, elderly lady who probably does not get out much to drive, but is heading to church on this Sunday morning? We don’t really know other people’s stories and the basis for their actions or reactions very well. When we understand those stories and motivations, our compassion grows. For this reason, Jesus is always cautioning us against judging others: not pointing out the speck in someone else’s eye when we have a log in our own, for example.
In contrast, we have access to ourselves and our own shortcomings in a way that no other being except God does. As we grow in closeness to God,the paradox is that we become ever more aware of what those personal shortcomings and limits are. Our energy is better spent on examining our own consciences than in pointing out others’ deficiencies or “diagnosing” what is wrong with them. We have plenty of material to work on with ourselves alone! In the parable, God expresses pleasure with the tax collector, because even though he may have many shortcomings, he brings those parts of himself to God as well as his strengths. The Pharisee holds back certain parts of who he is from God, and so their relationship remains distant and incomplete. God has compassion for us and our flaws because God knows our story intimately, the way a parent understands and loves a child. God is not a judgmental Pharisee–that kind of judgment is a limited, human way of looking at others. We can be trusting and confident that when we bring ourselves to God that God receives all of us with love.