On the Sunday in which we are asked to remember that the Church has a mission, a task to do, a purpose and a reason to exist, we are also given a stern warning that goes along with it. The disciples are sent out on this mission with a flea in their ear. With a warning not to get too big for their boots. They are cut down to size before they even start. Jesus says, if it is about ending up like the rather pompous man in the Gospel, then think again, if in some way you sound like this person, look like this person, behave like this person then you have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the road and worse, you might fall into the trap of pointing people in the wrong way too, you will have dealt people the wrong hand.
The stern warning comes in that withering parable that we have heard, which we have come to know as the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and it has a searing message.
2 people at prayer. One puffed up, the other barely able to raise his eyes. One eaten up by pride the other consumed by anguish at his shortcomings. One contemptuous of the other, the other humble. One needing nothing from God, the other needing everything.
The parable is more than just about 2 people at prayer, it is about 2 approaches to God, 2 ways of looking at things. The first thinks that thinks they have arrived, has the answers, who ticks all the boxes, nothing to learn – and who in truth hasn’t even begun, hasn’t even started, hasn’t learned the most important lesson. On the other hand the one who has really begun and yet thinks he hasn’t, who doesn’t seem entangled in the business of religion but has a humble spirit, is selfless, who has the thing that is most needed, the tools of the trade to begin, the right disposition.
Reading this Gospel passage and listening to it over and over again, it has a scary message: you could have spent you whole life, keeping the rules, doing what is meant and yet you have not really begun, not really started, not grasped the fundamental idea, the thing which is most important. On the other hand you think that you have not done anything right, come late to it, not kept the rules, not done things the right way round and yet GET IT in a way that others who have spent their whole life keeping the rules, fulfilling the obligations and who have not got it.
There’s a mystery to grapple with. Is the meaning behind the prodigal son, the lost sheep, Zacheus, the woman taken in adultery and so on. The last shall be first the first last. The humble shall be exalted and the mighty cast down.
Sadly we sometimes see that people who have spent their whole life doing their religious duties and don’t have an ounce of mercy or compassion, forgiveness or charity, who speak and act like empty vessels. Then there are the people who don’t have all the trappings and yet have got it, the forgiveness, the mercy, the compassion; the humble approach. The good heart, the open mind, the tender spirit.
When we look back at our history at the Church it is maybe a bit easy to judge things from our point of view but we don’t look very humble, we haven’t acted very humble and the resemblance between the Pharisee and ourselves is uncomfortably close. Our popes have looked like Kings, our bishops acted like princes our priests have behaved like Lords. How did we get from being humble fishermen and tax collectors to thrones and edicts and commands. Faith can be a heady cocktail, its easy to be drunk with the mix of authority, righteous and zealotry . Maybe there has been too many condemnations and not enough mercy. Maybe too many lighting bolts thrown from the pulpit and not enough reminders of the gentle and warm breeze that sweeps over us which is God’s mercy. Maybe there have been too many crusades, moral and actual, too much sabre rattling and not enough mercy and humility.
Pope Francis has said there is a lot that the Church has to ask forgiveness for from many people. That is a serious statement that we ought to think about.
What is the Mission of the Church? Why does the Church exist? What is its purpose at the end of the day? It is simply this, to bring the Gospel into the world, to let the Good News be known. It is to invite others to know love the God, not to coerce them. It is to teach and guide, to offer wise words and to point the way. It is to allow others to know the person of Christ in their life and the singular, unique and irreplaceable grace nthat he is and that he offers to us. It’s not about a land grab, its not about corralling people but it is somehow to allow the gentle breeze of the message to spread over the lands, sweep over the people, entering into the mind and heart of the soul who searches for God. It’s about witnessing what we have come to know. It’s about persuasion through manner of life, convincing through deeds which speak louder than words. This sense of the mission, banishes all complacency, all sense of having a right to look down on others, or to have ownership over the message, or to think we have arrived when we know that we are still travelling and journeying as a pilgrim people like everybody else. It is a breeze that travels around the world, it is a warm wind that wakens something in a person’s heart, it is a gentle wind that insists and that calls out to the heart of the one searching for God, the person wondering what it all means.