28 October 2013
A Bag of Chips
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
It seems like every time I open a bag of chips, there is more and more air, and fewer and fewer chips. The bag always looks good from the outside: full of shape, sometimes with a little window at the bottom, enticing you as to how many chips are in there, feeling full as you take it in your hands and pull it off the shelf. And then you open it up, and it’s like someone just popped your balloon, which is a pretty fitting metaphor, seeing as how as soon as you open it up, all the air goes out of the inflated bag. I have to imagine that I am not the only one who is disappointed at how little actual food is in a bag of chips.
Today’s Gospel is all about the right attitude of prayer. On the one hand we have the Pharisee who is full of himself and basically spends all his time reminding God how great he is. On the other hand we have the tax collector, who is so ashamed of himself that he won’t even approach the front of the temple, and won’t even raise his eyes to heaven. Instead, he simply asks for the mercy of God, not because of any merit of his own, but simply out of God’s goodness.
The Pharisee is like a bag of chips. It looks good from the outside, but on the inside it’s nothing but hot air. The Pharisee is so full of himself that there’s almost no room for anything substantial. He is so full of himself, that there is no room for God, which is why the tax collector goes home justified, that is, put into a right relationship with God, and not the Pharisee. The tax collector knew he only had a little, and could do a much better job with what he did have. So he begs God to fill him up. God wanted to fill up the Pharisee with His grace, but there was no room.
How often are we more air than substance? The sin of pride, of vainglory, can be so tempting. We think we know it all. We think we’re all good with God. But the reality is that often we are simply full of ourselves. Our culture certainly wants us to be sure of ourselves. To admit that you need something or someone is a weakness, and should not be tolerated. But when we are full of ourselves, we have no room for God to fill us up. God loves us enough and respects our free will, such that He will not force Himself on us. If we think we can do it ourselves and don’t need Him, He’s not going to try to cram more chips into a bag that’s already filled with air.
The temptation to be full of ourselves is particularly dangerous in an academic, affluent community like ours. We have professors who are at the top of their field. We have coaches who are among the best in the nation. We have CEOs and CFOs and leaders of industry who are used to being in control and having all the answers. And certainly, just because you are the best or at the top of what you do doesn’t make you the Pharisee. But it does mean that the temptation to think and act like the Pharisee from today’s Gospel is always there. When we’re the best at what we do, the temptation that Satan likes to entice us with is to think that we have it all together, that we know best in everything, and that we are self-sufficient. And the Evil One tries to convince us of the greatness of ourselves so that we don’t make room for God to fill us up.
But when we recognize just how poor we are without Jesus, that we cannot do it on our own, then we let out the air, and allow for more chips to be poured into our bag. When we recognize that we may be the best in our field, but that there is more to life than an academic discipline, a sport, or a company, then we allow God to work in us and to make sure we are not simply rich and content in the eyes of the world, but that we are rich in what truly matters to God. If we want to compete well, to finish the race, to keep the faith, as St. Paul says in our second reading, so that we can receive the crown of righteousness, then we have to open our hands to receive from another, which means that we don’t have it all under control and we can’t provide it all for ourselves.
When we pour ourselves out like a libation, like a liquid sacrifice, we don’t lose anything that we truly need, because we rely on God to keep us full. May we not be like the bags of chips you find at a grocery or convenience store, full of nothing substantial, but may we recognize how much we need God, and let Him fill us up, not with the hot air of an over-inflated ego, but with His grace and love which put us in a right relationship with God, and prepare us for the crown that God wants to place on our head, the crown of righteousness in the Kingdom of Heaven.