“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves.” (Luke 18:9)
My Bible translation is a little different than what we read during Mass, but it’s exactly that difference that struck me the most. I’ve learned that a lot of our coping mechanisms develop during times where we didn’t have control and we turned to certain actions to make us feel like we had it again. For me, over-religiosity was one coping mechanism that I picked up because it made me feel like I could control the good that came into my life. If I just fasted enough during Lent or if I donated my money past when it hurt, then I felt more secure that I was a good person. But of course, we can’t “earn” our way into heaven or even the blessings we receive on earth.
It took me a long time to realize that religious practices themselves weren’t the ends I should strive for. Fasting and tithing are meant to remind us of our dependence on God, not something to prove that we are “righteous”. The Tax Collector got it right that he couldn’t earn God’s love because it’s already something God wants to freely give. We just have to trust that God wants to provide for us, if only we consent to being provided for. Yes, we do need to change, but not to earn his love. We repent because sin breaks us and we are less able to have a relationship with God. We are also most ourselves when we don’t have to trust our own efforts, like how a child can play knowing that their parents or guardians will keep them safe and give them what they need.
It's understandable why we think we need to trust ourselves. We are the only thing we can control. And all coping mechanisms develop because they served us once or we wouldn’t keep returning to them. But maturing in our relationship with God means we do have to notice when self-reliance gets in the way of trusting him and how trusting only ourselves warps reality. It can even make us believe, like the Pharisee, that if we just do certain practices, then we will get our reward. But if we can be open to our weaknesses and our failings and bring them to God, then we can begin to feel held and secure in ways we could never do for ourselves.