Along one street in Northwest DC a few years ago could be found a red and white striped box. Beneath it is a small sign that identifies it as "The Compliment Machine." As a pedestrian approaches, a chime sounds and a gentle voice offers a compliment like "People are drawn to your positive energy" or "You’re always there when you’re needed."
"The Compliment Machine" is a reflection of our culture, which encourages the giving of praise and affirmation, especially in the workplace, at school, with spouses, and to children at home. And there’s a lot to be said for this. Most everyone appreciates being valued, thanked, and appreciated. It improves workplace morale, strengthens relationships, and can build confidence and self-respect.
However, there’s a downside to affirmation if we go overboard with it. People can get so conditioned to hearing praise for every little thing that they become overly sensitive to criticism. When they aren’t praised, they become insecure, and when they’re criticized, they become defensive or fall apart. Accordingly, the giving of positive criticism is now widely discouraged, for fear of damaging a person’s self-esteem. Worst of all, constant praise and affirmation can make people proud and arrogant and self-absorbed. They hear how special and fabulous they are all the time, and it goes to their heads. They expect everyone to acknowledge their greatness- even God himself.
Kind of like the Pharisee in today’s gospel story. He essentially prayed: "Hey God, look how wonderful and great I am. I do this that and the other. I am truly righteous- not like that other guy over there." That other guy, of course, was a tax collector who stood in the shadows, hung his head, beat his breast and pleaded: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Interestingly, God wasn’t impressed by the Pharisee’s prayer. It was the tax collector, Jesus tells us, who went away justified.
Some people may find this story somewhat puzzling. To begin with, the tax collector called himself a sinner. Won’t he hurt himself by his negativity? Shouldn’t he have tried to identify his positive qualities instead? Isn’t he damaging his self-esteem? And what about the Pharisee? Shouldn’t God have recognized him for his virtue? Shouldn’t he have been praised for all the good things he did? Why, in Jesus’ eyes, was it the tax collector who did what was right?
Questions like these have made Christianity a turn-off for some. Some of our faith’s harshest critics have said that, by focusing on things like sin, Christianity teaches happy people to be unhappy so it can minister to their unhappiness. And of course, we Catholics make jokes about our Catholic guilt and so on. Yes, there may have been times in our history that sin and sinfulness have been overemphasized. One can encounter it even today. An old school acquaintance of mine complains that all she ever hears from the priests at her church is that she’s a sinner.
The truth is, however, that God wants us to know that there are things about each one of us that don’t merit praise and affirmation. Things we need to change. Things for which we need to repent. Things for which we need mercy and forgiveness. Things we need to acknowledge and confess. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t affirm us, because he does. But, God affirms us and he judges us; he loves us and he challenges us; he loves the sinner, and hates the sin. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. When my eldest daughter was in kindergarten, she and her classmates are learned that God made each one of them unique and special, and that he loves them very much. That’s primary! But in second grade, she was introduced to the concept of personal sin as she prepared for her first confession. Both of these topics are necessary. We can’t emphasize one and neglect the other.
The tax collector in the parable acknowledged his sinfulness. But that doesn’t mean that he was being negative or self-defeating. He was simply being humble. And humility is a virtue. Humility doesn’t mean that we put ourselves down or have low self-esteem. It means instead that we have a realistic assessment of ourselves. It means that we know the real us- who we are in the eyes of God. In other words, humility is healthy self-knowledge. Pride, on the other hand, is self-deception.
Humility brings us face to face with our shortcomings and weaknesses, and thus our need for God. It enables us to see others with understanding and compassion. Pride makes us look down upon others in contempt- just like the Pharisee. It can even lead us away from God altogether. We can think that we’re so great and so special, that we have no real need of God. Jesus came to call sinners. But if we aren’t really sinners, then what’s the point of Jesus? It’s this sort of thinking that our Lord wants us to avoid. As Pope John Paul II once wrote, "If we forget our sinfulness, we forget our need for God. And when we forget our need for God, we have lost everything."
Should Jesus’ call to humility and reminder of our sinfulness discourage us? No! Jesus would never discourage us, because discouragement makes us lose hope. And Jesus wants us to be filled with hope. Instead, what Jesus wants is for us is to acknowledge that we have a need to change, and that in itself is a message of hope. Because it means that Jesus wants us to grow, which is a sign that he loves us. The truth is: If we humble ourselves, we will be exalted. If we confess our sins, we will be forgiven. If we acknowledge our need for God, we’ll experience his grace. We are indeed sinners. But we are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are sinners in the arms of a merciful God. And there’s no greater affirmation that God can give to us, than to forgive us of our sins.