October 24, 2004 Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18)
Reading II (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18) Gospel (St. Luke 18:9-14)
In the first reading today, we hear the words that God is just and that while He is not unduly partial to those who are weak, poor, oppressed, and so on, as a matter of justice He is going to hear their prayers and bring forth justice for them. We are told that He will not delay. Now, of course, for any of us who have struggled with various things and felt oppressed at times, sometimes it feels like there is a great delay; in fact, it sometimes seems that our prayers might not even be heard, let alone answered. But we also hear in the readings today just exactly how this is to take place if we want our prayers to be heard, and it is, we are told, the prayer of the lowly that makes it all the way through everything and will not rest until it has a hearing and will not stop until it is answered.
So it is a question of the lowliness, the humility that we have to have if we are going to be able to be heard. Not that God does not hear our prayers – He hears them all – but if we truly want our prayer to be answered, to be heard in that fullness, it is only if we are humble. The Lord makes that very clear in the Gospel reading as well. We hear about the Pharisee and the tax collector going into the temple. And about the Pharisee, we would have to look at it and say, “He was doing things right.” After all, he was fasting, he was tithing, and he was following the commandments. Yet we are told that when he walked out of the temple he was not justified; whereas we are told that the tax collector, who would be notorious for being a sinful person (stealing from people and so on), walked away from the temple justified. The reason in this case was not because the Pharisee was doing anything wrong externally or because the tax collector was externally doing anything right, but rather it had to do with the interior disposition with which they came before the Lord. The Pharisee looked at himself. He extolled his own virtue, and he tried to tell God how lucky the Lord was for having created someone so wonderful as himself. And while it is true that he was doing all the right things, it becomes quite evident that he was doing them for the wrong reason.
That is something we all need to be very, very careful of. There are what I call “Catholic Pharisees.” Those are people who just want to look at the externals, and they become very self-righteous within their own selves. They like to condemn everybody else; they like to be hypercritical and pick everything apart, pointing out where everybody is doing things wrong while of course they want to present themselves as doing everything right. We need to be very careful that we do not fall into that trap, which is a very easy one to fall into.
We can look at what goes on in many parishes. We can make comparisons and say, “Oh, thanks be to God that at least what we’ve got is according to the Church’s teaching.” That is true, and thanks be to God that we have that. We can even be grateful to God that in His mercy He has allowed us to be part of this, but we must be very, very careful not to be judgmental of others, not to condemn them. So many of the people in those other parishes do not know anything different. It is the way they were raised and it is the only thing they have ever known. They have never been taught and it is not their fault. But if we become self-righteous about the very things that are gifts from God, then we see that what we are doing is taking what God has given and making it our own, taking credit for it as though somehow this is something we have done for ourselves, that we are better than others because of the gifts God Himself has given. We can never do such a thing.
Rather what we must do is work toward humility, because if we are humble not only will we have the proper disposition with regard to others but we will also have the proper disposition with regard to God. We will go to prayer, not thinking that God is lucky because we showed up for prayer, but rather seeing ourselves as being completely dependent on God, not worthy to be there but having absolute necessity of it. When we walk away from prayer, if we are humble we will recognize our sinfulness and just how far we have to go. If, on the other hand, we are self-righteous when we go to prayer, we get focused on ourselves rather than focused on the Lord and we tend to get caught up in all kinds of external things while leaving what is most important aside – and that is the love of God that has to be in the heart. This is a fine balance that we have to work toward. Obviously, we want to do what is right, but we need to do what is right for the right reason, with the right disposition. It is not just a matter of following external precepts, but it is a matter of loving God.
Now we need, again, to be very careful. I remember talking with one priest who said to me, “Before I received the Holy Spirit I used to follow the rubrics exactly the way it was laid out and say Mass just the way it was in the book. But now I have the Holy Spirit, so now I’m free and I can do whatever I want.” Needless to say, going to Mass with this particular priest was not a pleasant experience and he was blaming that on the Holy Spirit, Who was given to us to lead us into all truth. So we need to be very cautious that we do not go too far to one side or the other. If we become like Catholic Pharisees, it is just looking at the external precepts and simply following them in a mindless way and being hypercritical if there is a mistake. On the other hand, if we go to the other end, we take the freedom we have as the children of God and we run with that to the point that it becomes absurd and it is not balanced. The spiritual life always tends toward balance. That is what we are looking for: to do what is right because of love for God and because of love for neighbor.
If this is going to be the case, it requires that we have to get ourselves out of the way. This does not come naturally or easily to any of us; we have to pray and ask God to do it. Then we can become like Saint Paul who, in the second reading, tells Timothy, I am already being poured out like a libation. If you think of yourself (your soul, in particular) as a pitcher that is meant to hold liquid, if you have that filled up with things that are not God, that are not His grace, before God can fill that in with His grace He has to dump out whatever is in there. It is the same as if you had a pitcher that was filled with something and you wanted to put something of greater value into that pitcher: You have to dump it out, pour it into something else and scrub it out, then you put in whatever it is that you want in that pitcher. God wants your soul filled with His grace, filled with His life, but that means we have to get rid of everything that is not of God. That is not something we can do by ourselves – only God can do that. We have to ask Him and we have to be willing to allow it to happen. Only when we can do that, when we are completely devoid of self and we have achieved true humility, can we be assured that our prayers indeed will be heard and that they will be answered because we will be praying in accordance with God’s Will because our souls will be filled with God rather than self. We will see ourselves in the proper light of God, not thinking ourselves to be some sort of gift to the world and especially to God, but rather recognizing our own unworthiness, that it is a gift of God Himself that He has called us to be who we are. Then we will be able to say with Saint Paul, I have run the race. I have completed the task. I have kept the faith.
In the meantime, all we can do is pray for the grace to do that. But we need now to pray for humility and to seek the Will of God, to be like that tax collector who came before the Lord and did not even lift his eyes, but simply beat his breast and said, “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording with minimal editing.