When I was at St. Mary’s in Stamford, which is a mostly-Hispanic parish, there used to be a running joke among the priests that all Hispanic women’s confessions began the same way: “Oh Padre, tengo problemas con mi esposo!” (“Oh, Father, I have many problems with my husband!”) And then they would proceed to tell us all of their husband’s many flaws… and at a certain point we would always have to stop and say, “I’m sorry Señorita, but this is your confession, not his!”
We all know those people who blame others for their problems. A kid gets a bad grade on a test, and he complains, “Oh, my teacher hates me!” A guy has a tough time at work and says, “My boss is just crazy!” A couple fights, and they both say, “Oh, if the other person would only change!” It’s always easier to blame the other person than to look at what needs to change in ourselves.
Jesus is clear that the purpose of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is to speak about people who are “convinced of their own righteousness”. The Pharisee – who truly was righteous in comparison to the tax collector – was so busy noticing the tax collector’s flaws that he couldn’t see his own.
But how often do we do that in our relationships? We say: My coworker doesn’t do his job right; it’s the other students’ fault that we got in trouble; if only my kid was more respectful we will have peace in the house. And while all of this might be true – maybe your coworker really isn’t doing their job, maybe the other students really are to blame, maybe your child really does need to learn respect – but it ultimately does no good only to focus on the other person’s flaws, when the only person we can truly change is ourselves!
Our standard for behavior should not be who we are in comparison with other people. Rather, we should ask ourselves, who are we in comparison with Jesus Christ? A lot of times we think, like the Pharisee, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as that guy.” That may be true – but are we as holy as Jesus Christ? We all fall short of His standard; thus, we all stand in need of repentance and mercy.
I was once in a profound conversation with a fellow and we were talking about holy people that we both knew – some real living saints. I asked him, in jest, “Do you think I’m holy?” He paused for a moment, cocked his head, and replied, “You’re not as holy as you should be.” It was an insight I’ve never forgotten!
So my challenge for you is this: if you find yourself in an ordinary human conflict today or this week, stop and consider: how can I change to become more like Christ in this situation? What can I do differently to bring healing to this conflict? There will be greater peace in our hearts, our homes, and our world when we stop thinking of ourselves as the innocent victim in every conflict (“The other guy’s gotta change!”), and instead turn the mirror around and start to look at our own repentance first.
Finally, I close with this story. It’s from Chicken Soup for the Soul – I know, I know, I apologize for how sentimental those are – but I thought this was a great, true story. A son in his late teens drove his father into town to run some errands, before the teen took the car in for some work. The boy told his father he would pick him up in two hours, after the car was done. After dropping the car off, the boy went to the movies. But this was back in the day when sometimes the movies were “double features,” where you can watch two movies in a row for one price (who remembers those days?!). So the boy lost track of time watching the movies and when he looked at his watch, four hours had passed! He quickly got the car and drove to pick up his dad. His father was waiting patiently, and the boy quickly came up with a lie: “Dad, the car took much longer than expected, I’m so sorry.” The father looked at him sadly and said, “I know that is not true. I called the mechanic and they said it was done over two hours ago. Now I am going to walk home and ponder what I have done wrong as a father, that you feel the need to lie to me.” And the father started walking home. The boy, heartbroken, followed his father home in the car – for ten miles, the father walked and the car trailed along at three miles per hour.
Not only is that story about honesty, it is also about a father who is willing to look at himself and his own failings first – and by doing so, he taught an unforgettable lesson to his son.
Mother Teresa was once asked by a reporter what needed to change in the Church. Her response:
“What needs to change in the Church? You and I.”