30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
List-Makers and Box-Checkers in God’s Economy
I’m a list-maker and a box-checker. It keeps my head straight. Sometimes I add completed tasks to my list just to cross them off. The (temporary) end of my to-do list calls for a celebration!
Box-checking works in the secular world, but God’s economy is not secular. We can check off all the religious boxes we want—scripture reading, prayer, Mass attendance, ensuring our children receive the sacraments, tithing, fasting… the list is endless—but even a completed Catholic to-do list can’t bring us closer to the goal, can’t protect us from the fires of hell. That’s our goal, not God’s. God is interested in relationship. He’s not interested in how many boxes we tick.
In the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus gets at exactly that point. The Pharisee is a box-checker. Even by praying at the temple, he’s squarely in his comfort zone. Parents point him out to their kids as an ideal model—which I’m pretty sure he notices. He’s doing what he has to do to go to heaven. In Jesus’s time, they were the good guys.
The Tax Collector is the bad guy. He’s stolen money and probably worse. Think drug addict or prostitute. He certainly hasn’t checked off any religious boxes. Yet, in Jesus’s economy, the tax collector has the right heart. In his prayer, he doesn’t utter the word I. He focuses on God and the mercy only God can bestow—the mercy he knows he needs. His presence at the temple and even his prayer are out of his comfort zone. But no matter how out of place he feels, he’s there. The tax collector does what we all need to do, yet parents shield their kids’ eyes from him.
The Pharisee tries to use his own abilities to earn heaven. The Tax Collector knows he can’t.
When my children were little and needed to apologize, I wouldn’t let them use the word but, as in “I’m sorry, but you pushed me…” A true apology needs no justification: “I’m sorry. I’m genuinely sorry. I messed up.” Then they started calling me on it. It was so hard not to say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you didn’t pick up your toys after I asked you four times.” If I was truly sorry, it didn’t matter what they had done.
I was reminded of that lesson this summer. I had hurt someone I love, and the first time I apologized I used a but. It wasn’t a real apology. I wanted the other person to recognize their mistakes because I was sure I was in the right. It took a “come to Jesus moment” to feel true remorse. Only then was I able to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Full stop. I had messed up, and I didn’t try to justify it. And then, and only then, was the relationship restored.
If the Pharisee doesn’t check all of his boxes, he’s disappointed in himself. There’s certainly no cause for a celebration. He hides from God until he can get himself right. The Tax Collector doesn’t have boxes. He has God. Having had his “come to Jesus moment” in the Temple, he may well do the same things as the Pharisee. But he’s not doing them to earn a relationship with God. He’s doing them because He already has the relationship and wants to honor it.