Long before NASCAR, they held chariot races. Sometimes a team of two horses pulled the chariot.
Maybe you will rejoice to learn that, according to St. John Chrysostom, the gospel parable this Sunday actually narrates a head-to-head chariot race.
The Pharisee drives one chariot. The first horse on his two-horse team: Righteousness! The Pharisee fasts, and he tithes, and he does them both above and beyond the call of duty. Jews were bound by divine law to fast once a year. He fasts twice a week! Jews were bound to give 10% of their agricultural produce. He gave 10% of his entire income!
No question. He is righteous. And righteousness is a fast horse.
Problem is, the second horse in the Pharisee’s team is…Pride. “Thank you, Lord, for making me better than other men.” And the particular breed of his pride? Contemptuous. “Not only, Lord, did you make me better than other men in general. You made me better than this particular loser standing in the shadows of the colonnade at the back of the temple courtyard.”
For some reason, I always assumed that the publican stood far enough away that he did not overhear the Pharisee insulting him. But, in his homily, St. John Chrysostom assumes the contrary. The Pharisee spoke loudly, and the publican heard his every word. “Thank you, Lord, for making me better than this dude. Yes, I mean you.”
So the Pharisee came to the starting line with a chariot and a team of horses yoked together. Righteousness and contemptuous pride.
The publican also had a chariot with a two-horse team. The first horse does not look good. Sin. What did tax-collectors in those days do? They lied. They cheated. They played all the angles. They threatened the weak. They only cared about money. They served the pagans. They were materialistic. They were cynical. They were unpatriotic. They didn’t practice their religion. They were altogether caught-up in the machinations of a crazy world that had turned its back on God.
So the publican entered the Temple courtyard behind the ugly, sad, pathetic horse of sin. But he had a second horse. Anyone want to guess?
According to the saints—according to God Himself—if you want to ride to heaven, one horse will get you there faster than any other. One horse in this race runs like greased lightning, travels at light speed—like a turbo-charged Indy car souped-up with space thrusters and more aerodynamic than a stealth bomber.
The tax-collector wouldn’t even raise his eyes. He beat his breast. He had an ugly horse of sin. But he also had the #1 spiritual thoroughbred in his team. Humility.
The race: The Pharisee has Righteousness striding out as a champion. But his yoke-mate Contemptuous Pride holds the team back like a dead weight. So the Pharisee’s chariot just spins in ridiculous circles. Meanwhile, the publican lurches off the starting line with shambling Sin, apparently going nowhere. But Humility picks up the slack. Which chariot will win the race to heaven? The one with Righteousness and Pride? Or the one with Sin and Humility?
Okay! Awesome. But you know what really doesn’t make any sense? Catholics who don’t go to Confession.
We know that all our sins can be forgiven. We know that Jesus Christ suffered and died on the Cross for one reason: so that our sins could be forgiven. We know that the priest offers us the one truly and absolutely confidential listening ear in this world with no privacy. We know that getting our sins off our chest makes us feel like gamboling newborn lambs.
We know that there is one guaranteed way to get closer to God, and that is to go to Confession regularly. We know that whenever I say the Act of Contrition, the angels dance and grace flows down from heaven like a waterfall.
The tax-collector won the chariot race. He had a ton of sins weighing him down. But he humbly confessed them. So then he was off like a shot.
We might think we have some righteousness. Maybe some of us actually do have some. But any righteousness we have is nothing compared to the infinite righteousness of God.
The tax-collector’s winning strategy was to turn away from himself and towards God. The Pharisee regarded himself as very important, maybe the center of the universe. Meanwhile, the tax collector loved God. The Pharisee knew that he had done righteous deeds, and it made him special—maybe the most special man in the world. Meanwhile, the tax collector knew he had done wrong. But he considered it all quite insignificant, compared to the glorious awesomeness of God.
Let’s say there’s a race between Superman and me to get to heaven. He’s got the cape; he’s the Man of Steel; he’s faster than a speeding bullet.
I got nothing. I’m old, going gray, getting fat.
But I can easily win the race. By going to Confession.