Fifty-eighth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Sirach 35:12-14; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
We’ve taken a look at many key concepts throughout the readings of this Jubilee Year: predestination, redemption, repentance, justification. Today we have two more. The first is humility, that virtue which the great C. S. Lewis once described as “not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” Humility is self-less-ness in the most arithmetical sense. And it is key for a proper understanding of the other key concept in today’s readings: righteousness, the performance of every action in accordance with the entirety of a code of conduct – ethical catholicity, if you will. Last week we read about how all of Scripture is a mighty tool for instruction in righteousness, and we have been using that tool throughout this Jubilee Year to lift the veil of dust from these ancient concepts and to understand better what it means to be “merciful like the Father.” So now, in these last weeks, let’s continue to use this tool to understand righteousness itself, and humility as the virtue that opens up for us what righteousness really is. Let’s continue to see better how this religion of the “both/and,” this grand paradoxical mechanism of the Son’s obedience works to accomplish the Father’s mercy.
The First Reading from the wisdom of Sirach unfolds for us that the Father in His impartial mercy is yet “not unduly partial towards the weak,” and that “[t]he prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” What does this paradox of God’s impartiality, which we are called to emulate, mean for us? Are the strong and the exalted meant to miss out of the benefits of God’s mercy? Perhaps, but not necessarily due to any neglect on God’s part. God responds to our humility – our self-less-ness – by tending to our needs while we tend to those of others, prioritizing us when we don’t prioritize ourselves. The strong and the exalted don’t need such prioritization – or, rather, feel no need put themselves in such a position. Truly the Lord of all “knows no favorites,” but the gifts of His mercy will not be received equally by all. Those who look for them will find them quicker than those who don’t; those who depend upon them will find them sweeter than those who don’t.
Such is the contrast of personalities we find in the Gospel reading, as Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee, basking in his own perceived righteousness, prays at the Temple to thank God for is fortunate position in life, unlike “the rest of humanity” which either is not as fortunate or is not grateful for it. He is so fortunate indeed that in praying he feels no need to ask God for anything, but instead glories in his ability to give from his surplus wealth. The tax collector, on the other hand, stands afar off and simply says, “O God, be merciful to me: a sinner.” Jesus tell us that it was the tax collector with his simple sinner’s prayer who “went home justified.” God’s not-undue-partiality reaches the tax collector long before it reaches the Pharisee, who while being faithful to the letter of the Law has forgotten how to be faithful to its spirit.
This marriage of the letter and spirit of the Law, through which the tax collector is able to recognize his sinfulness and ask for God’s mercy, is how Saint Paul was able to achieve “the crown of righteousness” he mentions to Timothy in the Second Reading. Knowing that his end is near, Paul reflects on the mad miracle of his life in Christ. He knows, as we saw back on his and Peter’s feastday in June, that it was the Lord who stood by him and gave him the strength to carry out his mission, to accomplish God’s will for him in this world, to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. We’ve seen through all his writings this year that after his conversion experience, his concern became not his own righteousness (real or perceived), but the kingdom of God and His righteousness and doing whatever he had to in order to spread that message – even suffering humiliation, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom. It is because of this strength from God, not from any strength of his own, that Paul can confidently say “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” It is also how he knows that the Lord will give him this “crown of righteousness,” because he has spent himself and his life in Christ allowing God to work His righteousness through him. “To him be glory forever and ever” – to God, not to Paul!
“[W]hoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” Jesus tells us, and shows us. The paradox of God’s partial impartiality is, in the end, resolved by our free will and by the way in which we love ourselves. How we love ourselves and how we love our neighbors go hand-in-hand, and it determines our readiness and willingness to love God with all our being just as He does love us. God’s mercy is truly impartial; it is we who feel that some are more equal than others! Let’s keep that in mind as we practice our self-less-ness. Let’s be less concerned with our own righteousness and more concerned with our own lowliness. As the old familiar prayer goes: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born to life.”