Keeping the Faith through Prayer and God’s Mercy, 30th Sunday (C), October 27, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
October 27, 2013
Sir 35:12-14.16-18, Ps 34, 2 Tim 4:6-8.16-18, Lk 18:9-14

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here: 

 

Fighting, Running and Preserving

As we draw near to the finish line of the Year of Faith, God would like each of us to be able to echo St. Paul’s words from today’s second reading. These words are basically the apostle’s last will and testament written to his spiritual son St. Timothy. He said he was already being poured out as a sacred offering to God and that the time of his departure from this life was near. And in one phrase he summarized all that he sought to do in his life since his conversion. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” These are expressions that, God-willing, each of us can sincerely say at the end of this ecclesiastical holy year and, even more importantly, each of us will be able to say honestly at the end of our life.

First, “I have fought the good fight.” The Christian life isn’t easy. It’s a battle and precisely a good and beautiful one. Like St. Paul, we need to struggle against our weaknesses and failings. We need to war against the devil and his unending attempts to turn us from God. And we also need to fight against those who don’t really want us to live a Christian life. St. Paul competed well, he competed like a champion, never quitting, but always relying on the help of God to fight so as to win. His perseverance is an inspiration to all of us in the Year of Faith and the life of faith.

Second, “I have finished the race.” One of the reasons why St. Paul was able to do so much for the Lord was because he always had a sense of urgency. He recognized that the Christian life was not one of sitting down on a comfortable chair waiting for others to serve us and letting life pass us by. It wasn’t even merely a journey, slowly following in Christ’s footsteps with a leisurely gait. It was a race! It was a life-long marathon. St. Paul ran that race all over the ancient world, throughout the Middle East, Asia and parts of southern Europe. Most of us are not called to anywhere near the same total on the pedometer as he amassed, but we are called to live our faith with similar urgency. We’re called to hasten to Church, to hasten to serve others, to hasten to grow in faith. And we’re called to persevere in the marathon of Christian life, up hills and down into valleys. The same Lord who gave St. Paul spiritual stamina will sustain us, because he’s running the race right along side of us to the heavenly Jerusalem.

Third, “I have kept the faith.” St. Paul’s greatest triumph was to keep the faith that he received as the greatest gift of his life. He remained faithful. He remained true to the loving covenant God had established. We know how he maintained the faith: he passed it on. He wrote to the Corinthians, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I myself received” (1 Cor 15:3). Pope Francis said in his homily this morning with 200,000 people in St. Peter’s Square with families from across the world in Rome to celebrate the Year of Faith: “But how did St. Paul preserve the faith? Not in a safe! He didn’t hide it underground, like the lazy servant who buried the talent. … He kept the faith because he didn’t limit himself to defending it, but proclaimed it, spread it, brought it to the farthest reaches of the world. … He preserved the faith because, just as he received it, he passed it on, throwing himself into the peripheries without hiding behind bunkers. Here we can ask ourselves: how do we, in the family, keep our faith? Do we keep it for ourselves, in our family, like a private possession, like a bank account, or do we know how to share it with witness, with welcoming, with openness to others?…Christian families are missionary families. They are missionaries in everyday life, doing everyday things, putting in everything the salt and the yeast of the faith!” Christian families are meant to be missionaries, sharing the faith first with each other, parents to children, brothers and sisters to each other, and eventually sons and daughters to their parents. From there the faith goes out to coworkers, neighbors, fellow students, friends and others. This will come somewhat naturally to us if we recognize the treasure of our faith and seek to share that treasure with those we know and love. To keep the faith through sharing it was St. Paul’s greatest boast; likewise for us to keep the faith by passing it on is far more important than becoming a billionaire, or starring for the Red Sox in the World Series, or getting elected mayor, or governor or president. The most important thing in life is to keep the faith so that we may secure that “crown of righteousness” that St. Paul describes.

Prayer in general and for mercy in particular

To fight the good fight, to finish the race and to keep the faith are three prisms with which we could look at all aspects of our Christian life. In today’s Gospel, however, Jesus speaks to us about two practices that we can ponder anew in this Year of Faith with the help of St. Paul’s valedictory. Today Jesus speaks about the importance of prayer in general and praying for mercy in particular.

We know that prayer is a battle. The Catechism tells us that sometimes prayer is like Jacob’s prayerful struggle all night against the angel of God. But we’re called to fight the good fight of prayer. Likewise, prayer is a marathon, in which we must persevere, as Jesus taught us all last Sunday in the Parable of the Persistent Widow. And if we’re going to keep the faith, we need to preserve a life of intense prayer, because, as Pope Benedict never ceased to say, prayer is faith in action.

Likewise, it’s a battle for us to recognize that we’re sinners in need of a Savior, to fight the good fight against the temptation to think we don’t need God’s forgiveness. But even if we win that battle, it’s not enough to admit we’re sinners. We need to run the race to receive God’s mercy in the Sacrament he established to heal our wounds along the marathon of life. And regularly receiving God’s mercy is one of the greatest means to keeping the faith, because often what discourages us against the faith is a life of sin.

And so today let’s look more carefully at the Parable Jesus gives us so that we can learn the lessons he is teaching us so that through them we may fight the good fight, run the marathon of life, and keep the faith.

The Parable of the Two Men Praying in the Temple

In the parable, Jesus describes two men who went up to the temple to pray.

The first man was a Pharisee. He prayed, “Thank you, God, that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” The man was what most people would deem today a good religious man. He was going up to Jerusalem to the temple to pray. He, like his fellow Pharisees, never sought to do the minimum in the practice of the faith but as much as they can. Whereas Jews were required to fast only once a year on the Day of Atonement, the Pharisees fasted twice a week. Whereas Jews needed to tithe only certain things, he tithed on his whole income. He was outwardly a role model. But there was something drastically wrong in his conception of God, his conception of the faith, and his conception of others. The first clue is that Jesus said, “He spoke this prayer to himself.” That doesn’t mean that he simply said it quietly so that he alone could hear, but, in a sense, he was praying that prayer to himself, that he was something special. He thanked God that he was not like so many others, who were thieves, rogues, adulterers and publicans. He rejoiced in what he saw was his virtue, but what he failed to recognize was that he was proud, judgmental, vain, boastful and uncharitable. He failed to see his own sinfulness. He failed to ask God for mercy, because he didn’t think he needed it. Compared to so many around him, and the other person praying in the temple, he considered himself a saint among sinners.

It’s important for us to note the contrast Jesus makes with the other man who went up to the temple to pray that day. The tax collector was hated by his fellow Jews not just because he was collaborating with the Romans who were subjugating the Jewish people, but because in the carrying out of his duty, tax collectors would routinely rip off their people for greed. They were assessed a certain amount that needed to be collected; whatever they could get beyond that was theirs to keep, and many of the tax collectors were ripping off the poor precisely in order to live well. They were in general corrupt, similar in some ways to an ancient mafia class that the authorities with whom they were conspiring would do nothing about. One would think that someone in this circumstance, who had given his life over to this type of betrayal of his nation and betrayal of so many people who lived around him, wouldn’t pray at all. For him to pray, some might say, was hypocritical. But he knew that even if others might never forgive him, God could, and he knew he needed God’s forgiveness. With no arrogance whatsoever, no self-importance, and great humility, he stayed in the back of the temple, beat his breast and say, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” As the first reading from Sirach says, “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds!” and his prayer did. He was totally conscious that he didn’t deserve forgiveness, but knew that the Lord was kind and merciful, that the Lord’s mercy endures forever, and with great repentance he prayed for that gift.

Jesus gave a startling conclusion to the parable. He told his listeners that of the two, the good man who fasts, tithes and lives outwardly by the mosaic law, and the detested one who rips off his own people and conspires with the pagan authorities, only one of them had their prayer heard and left the temple in a right relationship with God — and it was the publican! We’ve heard the parable so many times that we can miss the absolute shock that Jesus’ first listeners would have had in response to it. To understand their surprise, it would be like Jesus’ today substituting a Missionary of Charity for a Pharisee and a drug pusher for the publican and said that when the two left the Church only the drug pusher was justified, was truly on good terms with God. It would be like he said a pope and a prostitute went to St. Peter’s Basilica to pray but the only one who left justified was the prostitute. Such a comment was not about the type of life they were leading, but about the type of humble prayer they made. No matter what type of life we lead, we need to pray well, which means to pray humbly with a deep recognition of our need for God’s mercy.

This whole parable points to what Jesus had said elsewhere, “I have come not to call the self-righteous, but sinners!” If we wish to come to Church and leave on good terms with the Lord, we need first to recognize that we’re sinners, that we need his mercy, ask for it and seek to live by it. Only those who pray for mercy will receive it. Only the truly humble will be exalted.

Praying the Mass like the Tax-Collector

This has great practical consequences in the way we come to this temple of God to pray the Mass. At the beginning of Mass today, did we really mean the words we said, that “I have greatly sinned … through my most grievous fault? Do we beat our breasts with sincere repentance? Did we really pour ourselves into singing “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” or did we treat it as meaningless background music? Later in the Mass, when we pray the “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,” will we passionately cry out, “have mercy on us, have mercy on us, and grant us peace” from our sins? And perhaps most poignantly, when that Lamb of God is elevated and we behold him, will we pray with great conviction the words, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed?”

There’s a story I love to repeat about Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, who visited a prison one day. Each of the prisoners he spoke with claimed to be innocent: the victim of misunderstanding, prejudice, or simple injustice. Finally the king stopped at the cell of an inmate who remained silent. “I suppose you’re innocent too,” Frederick remarked. “No, sir,” the man replied. “I’m guilty. I deserve to be here.” Turning to the warden, the king said: “Warden, release this scoundrel at once before he corrupts all these fine, innocent people in here!”

Overcoming Self-righteousness

The message of the parable Jesus gives us today is ever urgent for us to grasp. There are of course still self-righteous people in the Church, who when they look at themselves in the mirror, think that they’re something special, that they’re better than other people, that, sure, they may have their weaknesses and problems, but at least they’re not like those who have “really sinned,” by having conceived children out of wedlock or gone to jail. They might admit that they, sure, they need a “little” of God’s mercy, but nothing near what others need. But this self-righteousness isn’t just a problem for those who, like the Pharisees, actually do try to live religiously. It can also afflict those who live like the publican. That’s very popular today in our culture and even in the Church. Those who are clearly violating the Lord’s commandments left and right — by never coming to Church, engaging in lifestyles totally incompatible with the Gospel — rather than repenting for their sins and coming to beg for God’s forgiveness, actually glory in their shame and attack the Church or those who are seeking to call them to conversion for being “intolerant” or “judgmental.” They can pray like this, “I thank you Lord, because I am not one of those hypocritical and intolerant modern Pharisees, who worry about fasting, who worry about coming to Church and praying, who worry about tithing, who worry about going to confession, but who in real life am worse than I am!” St. Luke tells us that Jesus addressed the parable in today’s Gospel to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else,” and so Jesus is proclaiming it to everyone who are convinced of their own righteousness, whether they have been religiously observant up until now or not.

What’s the Lord want from us? He wants us first to recognize we humbly need God’s mercy and have to ask for it. Second, rather than focusing on others’ sins, he wants us to concentrate on our own. The problem with the Pharisee in the Gospel was that he preferred to focus on what he was doing right, rather than what he was doing wrong. That’s a perennial temptation. We focus on the commandments we’re keeping and others are breaking, rather than the ones we’re breaking and the saints are keeping. And many of us, including many of us who pray, leave unjustified, because we haven’t been humble enough to beat our breasts and acknowledge our need for God’s help.

There’s also an obvious application to the Sacrament of Confession. If we genuinely recognize our need for God’s mercy, we’ll be so grateful for his having instituted a Sacrament whereby, through the ministrations of the same priests through whom he gives us his body and blood, he takes away our sins for real. If we really pray the words, “But only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” then we should come to the place where Jesus actually says those words through the same ministers through whom he declares, “This is my body. … This is the chalice of my blood.” Those who don’t examine their consciences and come regularly to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation are most prone to become like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel parable because they don’t think they need God’s mercy. In order to leave prayer justified, in order to live in a right relationship with God, each of us has to recognize that we relate as prodigal Sons to merciful Father, as sinners before a lifesaver. If we don’t relate to God that way, there’s no way we would be in a right relationship with him. Don’t take my word for it. Take Pope Francis’. On Friday morning at his daily Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae where he resides, Pope Francis spoke about the importance of all of our going regularly and well to the Sacrament of Confession. He admitted that it is often a battle, but he encouraged us all to fight the good fight and persevere in the battle against sin and in the war against self-righteousness — and to fight not principally through our own will-power but with the grace that God gives us in the Sacrament of confession. He said that one form of self-righteousness that’s common today is when we say, “We are all sinners” as a way of basically minimizing our own sinfulness. The expression “I’m a sinner” becomes “just a word, a way of speaking” because we don’t believe we need God’s mercy very much. He said another form of self-righteousness is when we say, “I confess to God,” which he says is like trying to say we’re worry to someone we’ve hurt by sending a brief email, without entering into the one-on-one, face-to-face contact that the situation deserves. The Pope was stressing that for us to be able sincerely to pray for mercy when we go up to the temple to pray, we need regularly to examine our consciences and go beg for mercy to Christ in the Sacrament of his Mercy. It’s the practice of good, regular confession that helps us always to pray with the humility of the publican, rather than live and pray with the spiritual blindness of the Pharisee.

Leaving Church justified today

Today we’ve all come to St. Bernadette’s to pray. Some of us are like the Pharisee. Some like the Publican. Most of us, a little bit of both. All of us, however, want to leave justified. The only way to do so is to pray for mercy and pray for it insistently like the importune woman before the unjust judge we met last week. And we have to make the resolution to come to get to receive it, and fight the good fight to keep that resolution, and keep the faith that underlies it, throughout the marathon of Christian life.

We finish by returning to St. Paul’s words and life. We remember that he used to kill Christians for a living, but he converted. Even though he became a great apostle, he always openly confessed that he was worst and least of all, because he had persecuted God’s Church. He discovered, however, that God was rich in mercy, so rich that out of his abundant mercy, he called Paul himself to be an ambassador of that mercy, calling people throughout the whole world to be reconciled to God. All Saint Paul did he did by the mercy of God, for the Merciful Lord who stood by him and gave him strength and at the end of his life, he was able to pray with humble gratitude to God that he had fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. Likewise, each of us needs to recognize our need for God’s mercy and how God has chosen us, like St. Paul before us, to pass on as of first importance to other this great news of his merciful love. Through the mercy of God, and through St. Paul’s intercession, may we do the same, and imitate him in fighting the good combat of the faith, finishing the race we’ve been given to run alongside Jesus, and keeping the faith in his merciful love — in this Year of Faith, in our life of faith, and into eternity!  Amen!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
SIR 35:12-14, 16-18

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23

R. (7a) The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the Lord hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

Reading 2
2 TM 4:6-8, 16-18

Beloved:
I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day, and not only to me,
but to all who have longed for his appearance.

At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf,
but everyone deserted me.
May it not be held against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
And I was rescued from the lion's mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. 
To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Gospel
LK 18:9-14

Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”