30th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Sirach assures us that the “Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. . .[He] is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow. . .The one who serves God willingly is heard. . .The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” Paul assures Timothy that as he, Paul, reaches the end of his life: “. . .the Lord stood by me and gave me strength. . .And I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat. . .” Both Sirach and Paul assure us all that our God is faithful to those who live their days in humility, in humble service to the proclamation of the Word. He hears and answers the prayers of the lowly and rescues those who serve His will. How do we become lowly? How do we bind ourselves to His will and serve out our days in His service? Jesus offers a parable. Two men go to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee; the other a tax collector. The Pharisee believes himself to be righteous by his deeds. The tax collector knows himself to be a sinner and cries out for God's mercy. Which one leaves the temple justified, made just by God?
The question here is not: which one is a righteous? The Pharisee is self-righteous; the tax collector is made-righteous. The question is: which one leaves the temple justified; that is, which one is made just in his humility before God? My question gives away the answer. You see, we already know that the Pharisee's prayer in the temple is useless. First, to whom does he pray? Jesus says, “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself. . .” He offers his praise and thanksgiving to himself. He is his own god. Second, how does he pray? He praises himself for not being a sinner; he gives himself thanks for “not being like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” And lastly, how does he think that he made himself righteous? “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” Works. He believes that pious works—w/o mercy, humility, or love—makes him righteous. Now, we know that the tax collector leaves the temple justified. Instead of praising himself for not being like other men, the tax collector does the only thing a truly self-aware sinner can do: he throws himself into the hands of God and cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner!” Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
And why should that be the case? Why are the humble exalted and the self-exalted humbled? Is God so paranoid about His status as Lord of the Universe that He can't take a little human competition for exaltation? Is He so worried about not getting His due that He has to rub our faces in how dependent we are on Him? I mean, come on, getting holy is no joy ride; it's not easy or quick. Getting to holiness takes a lot of determination, dedication, and plain ole hard work. Why shouldn't we be allowed to pay ourselves on the back when we achieve righteousness? Seems only fair! Fair or not, we can do nothing good w/o God. Every good thing we achieve, every good word we utter is motivated and sustained by the goodness of God, sustained by Him for our benefit. He gets nothing out of our good works. Nothing. All the benefits of mercy, love, forgiveness; all the profits from our holy labors, all of it accrues to us, enriches us, and brings us closer to His perfection. And all this happens—the goodness of our works and the benefits they accrue—b/c we are created to be made perfect in divine love. God wills that we use the gifts He gives so that His love might be perfected in each one of us. Accepting this truth is the beginning of humility.
So what then obstructs our growth in humility? We know the vice that opposes the virtue of humility is pride. What is pride? Pride isn't about taking pleasure on one's achievements, or claiming that one's nation, state, or team is particularly wonderful. Being proud of your children for academic and athletic awards isn't the sort of pride that thwarts humility. True Pride—the sort our ancestors put in first place on the list of Deadly Sins—is the erroneous belief that we do not need God; that we do not require His help b/c we are perfectly capable of saving ourselves from sin and death; that we are not only capable of saving ourselves but that we prefer to save ourselves. Pride leads us to believe that working for social justice and equality will save us; that holding the right beliefs and attitudes will save us; that saying the right prayers in the right order the right number of times will save us; that giving money to the Church, to charity will save us. Pride insists that we are each self-sufficient, independent, and absolutely alone. And that with these superlative qualities, we can become god w/o God. The serpent says to Eve, “when you eat [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods. . .” That serpent's name is Hubris, Pride.
Pride leads us away from God, so how do we overcome it? Like the tax collector at prayer in the temple, there's only one way to triumph over the self-righteousness that pride instills in us: throw yourself on God's mercy! Why is this the only way? B/c only God Himself can make you righteous; only God Himself can bring you out of sin and death and restore you to your rightful place in His Holy Family. He gives us His only Son, Christ Jesus, as the only means, the only Way, back to Him. And with the Holy Spirit pushing us toward perfection, pouring out for us and into us gift after gift after gift, we accomplish all that God commands us to accomplish for His greater glory. The Pharisee's good works are just that: his good works. Yes, tithing and fasting and praying are all perfectly wonderful spiritual exercises. But before a spiritual exercise can be efficacious, there must be a relationship of love established btw the human heart and Love Himself. Fortunately for us, God Himself initiated this relationship at the instant of creation, installing into every human heart and mind the gnawing need to seek Him out and live with Him forever. To think that I can satisfy this need for myself is Pride distilled into the darkest, deadliest poison.
Luke tells us that Jesus addresses his parable to a very specific audience: “. . .to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” We can't help but make the connection btw self-righteousness and hatred. Self-righteousness—born, bred, and nurtured in pride—rejects the necessity of loving others; it leads us to deny the need for mercy, forgiveness, trust in others. If I can make myself righteous, why do I need you? Or God? Or the Church? If my social justice causes and good works and charitable donations are enough, why bother with humility? Why bother with all that “love your neighbor” nonsense? Why bother? Sirach answers: “The one who serves God willingly is heard. . .The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” Paul answers: “I am already being poured out like a libation. . .I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” How do we answer? We throw ourselves on the mercy of God, confessing our sins, knowing that the Lord hears the cries of the poor—the poor in spirit, the truly humble, those most in need of His care, and those most willing to take into the world His re-creating love.