Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
March 5, 2016
Hos 6:1-6, Ps 51, Lk 18:9-14
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in this homily:
- “I desire mercy!” Those words that God says to us today through the Prophet Hosea and that we repeat in the Responsorial Psalm easily could be the theme of this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. God desires mercy! He desires it in two ways. First he desires to share with us his mercy. God’s greatest joy is forgiving, Pope Francis continually repeats, following what Jesus teaches us in the three parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin and Son. He wants us to receive that gift of his compassionate love. But he also desires us, having received it, to be transformed so that we, too, may pass on that mercy together with ours to others. He says he desires mercy instead of sacrifice, with sacrifice understood as the slaughtering of animals as an external act of repentance. The type of sacrifice he wants, we pray in today’s Psalm, is a “contrite spirit,” for “a heart contrite and humbled” God will never spurn. We seek to come before the Lord with that type of spirit and heart, made so by his mercy that wipes out our offenses, thoroughly washes us from our guilt and cleanses us of our sins.
- Today’s famous Parable of the Pharisee and Publican is one of Jesus’ most powerful illustrations of how God’s desire is to justify us through his mercy. 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 inwardly there was something drastically wrong in his conception of God, his conception of the faith, and his conception of others. He didn’t relate to God as one in need of his mercy and he seemed to have little mercy for 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 other spiritual “losers,” 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, with a humble and contrite spirit, 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 Sister of Life for a Pharisee and a pimp, drug pusher or abortionist for the publican and said that when the two left the Church only the latter was justified, was truly on good terms with God. It would be like he said a pope and a hit man went to Church to pray but the only one who left justified was the repentant hit man. 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 and perseveringly with a deep recognition of our need for God’s mercy, which is what he desires to give us most of all and desires us to give to others.
- That ought to have practical consequences for us as we today have come to this chapel to pray. Are we praying with a humble and contrite spirit like the Publican or with the self-righteousness of the Pharisee? 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? Do we really recognize that we have greatly sinned in our thoughts, in our words, in what we have done, and most of all in our omissions? Did we really pour ourselves into saying “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!,” praying with truthful desperation because we know how much we need it. 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?”
- What’s most likely is that all of us at least partially mean these words we pray. We recognize we’re sinners “just like everyone else.” We grasp God’s desire of mercy and we wish to receive it, at least a “little.” We know that in the past we may have needed it more than we do today, but we recognize, because we regularly examine our consciences and go to confession, that we are sinners and the only reason we might not be notorious ones is by God’s prevenient mercy. But often we don’t persevere in this cry for mercy, the way one of the blind men in the Gospel was crying out like an animal in pain for Jesus of Nazareth to have mercy on him. God addresses this issue in today’s first reading through the Prophet Isaiah, calling the piety of those in Ephraim and Judah “like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.” It’s a powerful image. In context, 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. They weren’t persevering in receiving it. Hosea instructed 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 had allowed them to suffer difficulty precisely to bring them to conversion, but they resisted. They didn’t make the second or the third day. God wants us to learn from them how to persevere. Sometimes our life, sometimes our day, can begin like the beautiful refreshing dew, with all types of sentiments and actions of piety and faith, with great recognition of our need for God and his merciful love, but then we allow that inner reverence and love to dissipate; we have the good intentions to serve God in our prayer and in our work 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 us today is a mirror by which we can examine how we’ve come here “to the temple” today to pray, whether we are seeking what he values most, whether we’re open to the mercy he wants to give, whether we’re intent on loving according to his categories or our own.
- Today we’ve all come to Mass to pray. We’ve all come at least 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. Whether we’re like the Pharisee in terms of filling our day with religious practices or like the Publican, who live far from the Lord in action, or at times like a little bit of both, all of us, however, want to leave justified. On Tuesday we pondered the words from the Book of Daniel the priest prays after offering the chalice, right before his hands are washed. They dovetail with the words of today’s Responsorial Psalm and are meant to help us all make the type of sacrifice God considers pleasing: “In spiritu humilitatis, et in animo contrito suscipiamur a te, Domine: et sic fiat sacrificum nostrum in conspectu tuo hodie, ut placeat tibi, Domine Deus.” “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received [by you, Lord]; so let our sacrifice be in your presence today,” that it may be pleasing to you, Lord God. We present ourselves with a humility and contrition so that God the Father can transform us by his mercy through this most important prayer of all. 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:
Reading 1 HOS 6:1-6
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.
Responsorial Psalm 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.”