+O GOD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME A SINNER 30th Sunday(C), 2019
The words of Scripture this morning give comfort and encouragement to us all. We all sympathize with the tax collector who stands afar off, beating his breast and praying: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ The words challenge us as well for we also have those moments when, like the Pharisee, we think ourselves better than others and easily judge her or him for their way of life. The lesson of humility is not an easy one to learn but it grounds us in the truth Jesus seeks to convey, opening our hearts to the continual gift of divine grace.
The readings from Sirach and letter of St Paul to Timothy are beautiful instances of this divine working. God “hears the cry of the oppressed, ..is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.” In fact their voices seem to have a power over God until they are heard. In writing to Timothy, St. Paul is at the end of a life of labor and knows that in death God will reward him. But he too knows this is only because God has rescued him from the lion’s mouth and will rescue him “from every evil threat and will bring him safe to his heavenly kingdom.” To God alone belongs the glory forever and ever.
We have grown familiar with the story of the Pharisee and tax collector so that it becomes easy to ignore the call to each of us for a continual conversion. God is not all that interested in our exterior behavior but is very interested in our hearts, in what moves us to do the things we do. The divine judgement in our parable is all about whether our lives are self-centered or God-centered. It is not about out outward performance but our inner motive.
The Pharisee’s description of his religious practice is probably pretty accurate and his negative evaluation of the tax collector, accurate as well. Tax collectors in the time of Jesus, being paid little or nothing for their work would exact money from those from whom they demanded taxes to where they often became dishonest or greedy. The stance of the tax collector standing afar off and beating his breast is an honest one.
What Jesus shows us in the parable is the inner disposition of each of these men and in doing so reveals what God is really looking for in each of our hearts. Where the Pharisee claims superiority over the other because of his good deeds, the tax collector begs for mercy. The Pharisee has no real need but the tax collector prays out of a deep sense of inner poverty and is answered.
Just being poor, oppressed or brokenhearted does not necessarily bring us closer to God. But if we allow such experiences to lead or move us to turn to God rather than to ourselves we will be sure to know the power of grace. God is all merciful and strengthens us as often as we turn to God in our need. This is what St Paul had done throughout his life and knew that he would be forever rewarded for it. One sees here the basis of so much of what St Benedict wrote in his Rule about the value of humility so as to run in the way of God’s commands.
There is always the danger for Religious to fall into a kind of self-righteousness, attributing to themselves the good they do. And as brothers we know how easy it is to begin judging one another for failures to meet our expectations of how one should live the life.
God sees us in a clearer light, for God sees what’s going on deep down within our hearts. The one we see sinning may well be asking for God’s mercy while we, because of our self-righteousness, fail to see our dire need. Ironically enough, to presume righteousness through our own power is to fall into sin, the self takes center stage rather than God. When God is at the center of our lives, we know by experience that God’s merciful love endures forever.
To know our own frailty is to be continually open to the wonderful gift we are about to receive in this Eucharist. It is a sharing in the infinite love God has for us in Christ Jesus, a becoming one with his very own Body and Blood. To do so is not only to go home justified but to be exalted already here below as a bearer of God’s very own life and love.
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 1 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14