Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
March 29, 2014
Hos 6:1-6, Ps 51, Lk 18:9-14
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in this homily:
- Today in the passage from the Book of the Prophet Hosea, God gives voice to his frustration. He desperately wants to show the peoples of Judah and Ephraim his mercy, but they resist it. “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.” It’s a powerful image. Their faithfulness is like dew on the grass that just doesn’t last. It evaporates as the day draws near. They started out faithfully early in life but that piety dissipated. God was saying through the prophet that he wanted to show mercy, but that they weren’t open to receiving it. Hosea instruct them that the Lord had been trying to bring them to conversion, but they were superficial like the dew. “Come, let us return to the Lord, it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds. He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence [a clear reference to how he will do it through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection!] … He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.” The Lord has allowed them to suffer difficulty precisely to bring them to conversion, but they resisted. He emphasized through Hosea that he desires mercy more than the sacrifice of so many animals and foodstuffs — he desires that they receive that mercy more than seek to offer bulls and sheep and share that compassion with others more than first fruits.
- In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that Jesus gives us today, he shows us how he desires to give us his mercy more than to receive our sacrifices. He illustrates for us how sometimes our life can begin like the beautiful refreshing dew, with all types of sentiments and actions of piety and faith but then allow that inner reverence and love to dissipate, how we can have the good intentions to serve God in our prayer but over time have those graces fade away by focusing on ourselves rather than — to pick up the theme of yesterday’s Gospel — loving God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and loving our neighbor as God has loved us. The Parable Jesus gives is a mirror by which we can examine how we’ve come up to the temple today to pray, whether we are seeking what he values most, whether we’re open to what he wants to give, whether we’re intent on loving according to his categories or our own.
- 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 regularly climbing up to Jerusalem on foot to the temple to pray. He, like his fellow Pharisees, was going far beyond the minimum in the practice of the faith. 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 religious role model, but his piety was like the morning cloud. 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. He was satisfied with saying his prayers, giving his tithes, completing his fasts, rather than recognizing that the Lord was trying to rend him so that he might receive mercy and then share that mercy with others, including the tax collector praying behind him. But compared to so many around him, and the other person praying in the temple, the Pharisee considered himself a saint among sinners.
- The tax collector, on the other hand, 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 how much 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.” 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. And as God says through the Prophet Hosea, God’s mercy came to him like the “spring rain that waters the earth.” His seeds were watered far more than seeds are spurred to grow by the “morning dew.”
- 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 Church 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 and how they had arrived at the temple and were preparing to leave. Jesus is teaching us that we, too, need to learn to pray humbly with a deep recognition of our need for God’s mercy, which is what he desires to give us most of all and to have us give others.
- This has rest practical consequences for us today. 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. 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 saying “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” or did we pray like like the morning dew? 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 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, something that is 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’ll misinterpret and try to throw in others’ faces Pope Francis’ words, “Who am I to judge?,” and simply persevere in perversely acting in defiance of God’s holy commandments. 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.
- Today we’ve all come to St. Bernadette’s to pray. We’ve all come with the morning dew of a desire to pray, but the Lord wants us to persevere so that we may be washed in the spring rain of his merciful love. Some of us are like the Pharisee in terms of filling our day with religious practices. Some like the Publican, who live far from the Lord in action. Most of us, we’re 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. Then we need to come to receive it in the Sacrament of God’s mercy. Then we need to recognize that what God wants most of us is to share that gift. As we prepare to receive in this Mass Mercy Incarnate in the very person of Jesus Christ, let us ask him for all the help he knows we need to pray this Mass well, and to enter into communion with him who gave us his body and blood during the Last Supper and on the Cross “for the remission of sins,” so that we may leave this temple today “justified” in a right relationship with him not just until the sun comes up to dissipate the dew but perseveringly in life until he comes for us on the clouds.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
it is he who has rent, but he will heal us;
he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.
He will revive us after two days;
on the third day he will raise us up,
to live in his presence.
Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD;
as certain as the dawn is his coming,
and his judgment shines forth like the light of day!
He will come to us like the rain,
like spring rain that waters the earth.”What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your piety is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that early passes away.
For this reason I smote them through the prophets,
I slew them by the words of my mouth;
For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice,
and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
PS 51:3-4, 18-19, 20-21AB
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
R. It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.
Be bountiful, O LORD, to Zion in your kindness
by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem;
Then shall you be pleased with due sacrifices,
burnt offerings and holocausts.
R. It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.
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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”