Thirtieth Sunday In Ordinary Time (YR C)
Readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18
In the Gospel reading today the Pharisee prays, thanking the Lord that he is not like the rest of humanity. He goes on to list some of the ways of humanity that are not like himself: greedy, dishonest, and adulterous.
What he failed to recognize is that he was like the vast majority of humanity in that he was weighed down with pride.
Acknowledging his positive qualities this man assumed that he was, therefore, justified before God. Blind to his negative qualities, he placed himself above others and thought himself to be quite justified. In his comparisons he goes so far as to not only size himself up against the rest of humanity in general, but against the tax collector who was in the Temple at the same time.
This is important because tax collectors were considered to be among the lowest of all humanity. This is critical to the story because the tax collector went home justified while the Pharisee did not. Even though the Pharisee prayed and fasted, his arrogance was enough to bring him down. The humility of the tax collector, on the other hand, was enough to cover his sins and make him acceptable in the eyes of God.
One might object saying that in the first reading we are told that those who serve God willingly are heard when they pray. It is clear from the Gospel that the Pharisee served God willingly, so he should be rewarded. The problem the Pharisee had is that he was serving himself, but using his religious observance as the means to either convince himself of his goodness or to try to impress others.
Either way, what he is doing is for a self-serving purpose and our Lord tells us that if we do something for that reason we already have our reward. If he were truly serving God, he would have a disposition more like that which we see in St. Paul in the second reading. He had served the Lord faithfully and did not seek anything for himself. His focus was not on being justified in his own mind; rather, his focus was on God and being able to go to Heaven.
We all know from the Scriptures that God took everything from St. Paul so that the great saint would find everything in God. He served the Lord in easy times as well as in very difficult times. He did not abandon the Lord even in the times when it may have felt like the Lord had abandoned him. He proved that his effort was not about himself, but it was about God and souls. As he says of himself, he was poured out like a libation.
This is a lesson we all have to learn. Most people learn it by raising a family and learning how to pour themselves out for the sake of the others. Beyond that, there are many things in family life that help us with our humility and force us to turn to God. There may be times, especially early in a marriage, where it is hard to die to self and many things that are done are self-serving. We find ourselves like the rest of humanity with regard to both the sins we commit and with the pride that underlies those sins. With time, we learn to serve out of love.
If we learn to put ourselves last, not out of a false sense of humility, but truly seeking to place others before us and serving them, then our prayer will be heard, as we are told in the first reading. In the meantime, we have to pray and ask the Lord for the grace to become humble, to become a servant, to have our hearts transformed to love.
This is a slow and often painful process (just ask St. Paul). It requires a willingness to change, to be rejected, to be used. We cannot set out trying for these things, because that would be pride. We need to accept them peacefully and joyfully when they do arrive.
We look to the example of our Lord as Someone who poured Himself out for others, who loved and who served. People took advantage of Him then and they still try to do so today. They rejected Him and ultimately killed Him. We do not have to be put to death; we just need to die to self. But that most often requires a heavy dose of difficulties to teach us not to focus only on our own self.
Pray for humility and do not think that you can make yourself acceptable to God. Ask Him to do it for you and He will shape you into the likeness of His Son. Then you will go home (to Heaven) justified.