27th October 2013. 30th Sunday of Year C
Sir 35:15-17, 20-22. “The prayer of the humble will reach to the clouds.”
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18. I have fought the good fight and will receive the crown of glory.
Lk 18:9-14. “Two men went up to the temple to pray.” Two contrasting approaches to God.
First Reading: Sirach 35:15-22
The Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek
as she cries out against the one who causes them to fall?
The one whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted,
and his prayer will reach to the clouds.
The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and it will not rest until it reaches its goal;
it will not desist until the Most High responds
and does justice for the righteous and executes judgment.
Indeed, the Lord will not delay,
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
A Humbled Heart
Opposites Attract: In marriage and other human relationships we often notice how two unlike personalities complement each other, like the positive and negative sides of a magnetic field. One partner shows a natural flair for leadership and the other is happy to follow that lead, at least in many areas. Among ourselves, the taking of initiatives will be shared back and forth of course, neither partner being fully passive with respect to the other; but with God there is only one proper relationship: he is the powerful giver and we the dependent receivers.
This weakness on our side, this dependency towards our Creator and Father, is in fact our way to peace. As Paul so clearly saw: “when I am weak, then am I strong; I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (2 Cor. 12:10; Phil. 4:13.) The apostles attributed all their abilities and successes (cures, conversions) to the power of God, working through them. Only when we are humble in God’s presence can he do great things in us – as Our Lady so well declares, “He casts the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly.”
Why Humility? People often feel awkward about regarding humility as a virtue at all. Is it really a good thing to feel small? Or does it harm our ego and our self-confidence. Perhaps the word “humble” is too often misused, applied without much thought to dwellings that are shoddy or neglected, to efforts that are half-hearted failures and to characters who adopt a pose of false modesty in order to win approval.
Genuine humillity is nothing more nor less than recognizing our inward truth. It is seeing ourselves at a profound level, in God’s presence, with no pretences and no poses. Every individual in the presence of the All-Holy, All-Powerful God comes to recognize himself/herself as weak, imperfect and indeed sinful; and with this comes a deep sense of our need for mercy. In this situation, there is no bribe that we can offer, to distract God’s attention from our guilt. There is no pressure we can exert (as we might among ourselves) in order to gain a credit we do not deserve. The only resource that really helps is a humble spirit; only this incentive draws down on us divine mercy and the grace we need for good living. The Publican felt this need for complete honesty, as he stood in the Temple of God. “Lord, be merciful,” he said; and went home with his sins forgiven and with relief in his heart.
Virtue Spoilt By Pride: But tell me, what’s wrong with this Pharisee, if anything? In many ways he leads an admirable life and gives good example within the Jewish tradition. If we accept his own version of himself, he kept all the rules, from fasting and almsgiving to honesty and purity. There was real effort there, an admirable commitment to holiness, within his tradition. But this all caused him to forget that he remained weak and sinful, like other people. His reputed holiness becomes the centre of his prayer. He goes so far as to despise others, while giving thanks for his own good qualities. And by this attitude, he spoils the effect of his other virtues. Pride is like a worm, destroying the apple at its core. Indeed, it turns him from speaking to God, to talking about himself. His prayer dies.
Collective Pharisaism? Can we apply this warning to our personal attitude, towards God and towards others? Do we Catholics sometimes take a stance of collective pride, towards those who don’t belong to our Church. Of course, we rightly regard ours as the fullest expression of Christ’s Church and maintain that Catholicism defends moral standards, a vigorous liturgical life and a visible world-wide unity among believers. And we should be thankful for these things and want to share them with all who are searching for the truth. But isn’t there also a niggling temptation to look down on other churches, to disparage their values or under-rate the sincerity of their members? We must guard against any narrow, self-righteous Catholicism and keep up that respect for other Christian communities that was promoted by our last Church Council. Leave God to judge the merits of other persons and their faiths. It is enough for us to trust in his mercy, recognise our own imperfections and place our hope in the merits of Crist, applied to us through his holy sacrifice.
The Great Achievers: There is a tradition in rural Ireland for men to congregate at the back of the church during Sunday Mass. In the recent past, it was customary for them to take off their caps, place them on the floor and kneel on them on one knee. Generations of peevish parish priests thundered at them from the altar, in an effort to eradicate the custom. But this was one battle the parish priests of Ireland lost. I don’t know when it originated. It has been suggested, with some plausibility, that it derived from the penal times when there were no churches. The Mass-houses and cabin-chapels were small primitive buildings, providing shelter only for the priest and a handful of the faithful. The men remained outside, exposed to the elements, leaving to women and children whatever shelter was available.
Pharisee and Tax Collector
If we could get this story into my heart, we would be helped enormously in our grasp and practice of the gospel. It spells out how to come before God and how not to come before God.
A newly commissioned colonel had just moved into his office, when a private entered with a toolbox. To impress the private, the colonel said “be with you in a moment, soldier! I just got a call as you were knocking.” Picking up the phone, the colonel said “General, it’s you! How can I help you?” A dramatic pause followed. Then the colonel said “No problem. I’ll phone Washington and speak to the President about it.” Putting down the phone, the colonel said to the private “Now, what can I do for you?” The private shuffled his feet and said sheepishly, “Oh, just a little thing, sir. They sent me to hook up your phone’!
My generation were given all the rules and regulations and we were told to remain faithful to those and not deviate in any way and that we would so merit heaven. The religion I had growing up was to keep people from going to hell. Spirituality, on the other hand, is the only thing that frees those who have already been in hell. – Ask anybody in recovery from addictions, compulsions, etc. Religion is about externals, it’s what we do and it’s about control. Spirituality, on the other hand, is what God does, it is internal and it’s about surrender.
But the way to holiness is to discover that I’m a bigger sinner than I ever thought I was! The closer I come to God, the more obvious the sin is. It is a long journey from the Pharisee at the front to the Publican at the back. It is a journey of repentance and of facing up to the truth. It is a journey that Life will provide if I have the courage and honesty to find it. If I still think that I should be still up at the front with the Pharisee, then my life will be riddled with guilt and I will never find peace.
The Publican knew his place before God. God is the Creator, I am the creature. I am a sinner, Jesus is Saviour. Unlike the Pharisee, I have no right to compare myself to anyone else. All judgement is to be left to God. I can look at the most hardened criminal and say “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I have no reason to boast whatever. I could have been born to any parents, in any country, at any time. I did not select my sexuality, the colour of my skin, or my religious beliefs. With total conviction, I can stand before God and pray “Oh, God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Check your own attitude before God. It is like going out into the back garden on a warm sunny day, lying back in a deckchair and getting a suntan. The only thing you did was to make yourself available; the sun did all the rest. Don’t ever over-emphasise the importance of your contribution when you stand before God.
We are all the same when we stand before God!