This homily was given at Mater Dolorosa Parish, South San Francisco, CA on the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 23, 2022. The audio is available here.
You’ve probably seen the meme on Facebook or Instagram.
Under an image of a good-looking guy with big muscles, it says: “Dear men, what is preventing you from looking like this?”
We live under the tyranny of perfection, surrounded by glossy images of people with perfect bodies, perfect résumés, and perfect lifestyles.
And nowhere more so than on social media.
We all kind of know what we see on Facebook or Instagram isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean we don’t judge ourselves against it.
And so we strive to achieve in ourselves the kind of perfection we see portrayed so convincingly in the movies and on our cell phone screens.
Our culture may have perfected this art, but striving after a false standard is nothing new.
Consider the Pharisees.
The Gospel writers portray them as a group obsessed with perfection.
In their case, much more admirably than our culture’s present obsession with superficial, passing things like beauty, money, success, the Pharisees were preoccupied with the Torah, the law of God.
They were so concerned with keeping the law perfectly that they set up what they called a “fence” around the law, a lot of little laws, so as to avoid not just breaking the commandments, but even coming close to breaking one.
The problem is that in doing so, they invented a false standard of perfection.
The Pharisee Jesus describes in today’s parable is the epitome of striving after this false standard, and he’s doing pretty well in getting there.
The Torah prescribed one day of fasting per year on Yom Kippur; this Pharisee fasts twice every week.
The Torah calls for Jews to tithe ten percent of their income to the temple; this Pharisee announces he gives ten percent off everything he has.
And while it’s never wise to make sweeping generalizations, as if all the Pharisees were like this, the deeper problem the Gospel writers point out with this Pharisee is that all his striving has given birth to pride.
Pride is sinful self-preoccupation, becoming fixated on ourselves, what we do, rather than looking outward at each other and upward to God.
This Pharisee was not really talking to God at all; he “spoke this prayer to himself: ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity!’”
As long as he succeeded at keeping the law, and all the little laws they had built up around it, he could feel smug, superior, self-satisfied.
That’s one possible outcome when we live according to a false standard.
But because the standard is utterly wrong, made-up, and nearly impossible to achieve, most of us find our efforts to reach it are in vain.
The more we strive after a false standard of perfection, the more we get burned out, exhausted, and convinced of our own inadequacy.
Yet behind all our striving is the same sinful self-regard: looking at ourselves with sadness and contempt, rather than preening satisfaction, but still looking at ourselves just as much as the Pharisee.
Jesus proposes a different standard … the true standard of perfection.
By his very life, simply being who He Is, and by His words:
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now, He’s God and we’re not; He’s omnipotent—we’re not.
But “God is love,” and we are made in his image, the image and likeness of divine love, and we can strive, by the grace of God, to love as He loves: to love as Jesus loves.
This is the first and the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
In order to love as Jesus loves, we first have to humble ourselves.
Humility, the opposite of pride, means, not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.
Humility means accepting the truth that we are sinners, we are deeply broken and flawed, with imperfect bodies and messy lives, failing more than we succeed, and yet … we are made for love.
We don’t need to earn it by striving after some false standard of perfection, as if we’ll finally be loved when we succeed.
Instead, like the publican, we come before God in the truth of who we are and let ourselves be loved … and strive to love God and one another as Jesus loves us.
Today, at this Holy Mass, raise your eyes, lift your gaze, and look at Him in the Holy Eucharist … and let Him look at you with His gaze of love.
As we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner, and grant that I may strive to love you with every breath, with every beat of my heart, and love my neighbor as you love me.”
As we strive for the perfection of love, forgetting ourselves and our false standards, we find an unexpected peace, joy, and confidence filling our hearts.
And we who humble ourselves for the sake of love will be exalted, not on Instagram, but in the Kingdom of Heaven, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.