Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"The one who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:14
The great Southern authoress, Flannery O¹Conner, was a devout Catholic and recognized as one of the most important American writers of the second half of the 20th Century. She was most well known for her short stories, that always had an underlying spiritual and, in some cases, decidedly Catholic message. One such story I recall was entitled "Revelation."
The story told the tale of a self-righteous farmer¹s wife who learns an important lesson. Being prosperous and a bigot on top of it all, she considered herself saved and better than anybody else. The story describes how one day she went to the doctor¹s office and met all sorts of people whom she thought inferior to herself. One of them, a deranged young girl, attacks the lady in the waiting room, and the wealthy farmer¹s wife is so upset that she returns home forgetting why she went to see the doctor in the first place. The experience of the attack has the unexpected result of shocking the lady into realizing that she is not the only person in the world worthy of respect. She falls asleep under a tree and has a dream. She dreams of the day of judgment, and in her vision she sees all of the lesser people that she looked down upon going up to heaven before her. It is her ultimate "Revelation."
Jesus teaches the same lesson in the Gospel today. "Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else" (Luke 18:9). Two people go to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee. He is a religious leader, no doubt well respected. What is his prayer? "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous, or even like this tax collector" (Luke 18:11). Oh, yes, the other person who had gone to the temple to pray was an abject tax collector. Tax collectors were a particularly sorry group in Jesus' day. Their work involved what we would call today "independent contracting." They were considered traitors because tax collectors often were hired by occupying Roman authorities to collect taxes. On top of it all, tax collectors were notorious for stuffing their pockets with commissions and inflated tax revenues. So the Pharisee is comparing himself to the tax collector. The Pharisee sees himself as so much better, so much worthier. And what is the tax collector doing? How is he praying?
Jesus tells us that the tax collector stood at a distance, not even raising his eyes to heaven, and beating his breast. His prayer is a simple one: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). This simple prayer expresses all of the humility of one who knows that he has done wrong. Maybe he wants to change his life. Maybe he is caught in the dilemma of many sinners, where he wants to convert his heart but is having a hard time doing it. Maybe, as a last hope, he is throwing himself at the feet of God and pleading, "Help me." Maybe - and I would like to think that this might be the case - he has already repented in the past. Possibly he is returning to the temple to tell God, "You have been so good to me, forgiving me in the past, but my sins weigh heavily on my heart. Please know that I am still sorry for them, that I know my weaknesses, that I know who I am, a sinner, who but for your grace, would be worse off."
Who goes away justified? We hear that word spoken of from time to time, "justification." It means who is really pleasing in God¹s sight. It is the tax collector who is pleasing to God, not the self-righteous Pharisee. The one who is pleasing is not the one who thought he was saved already, already perfect, already just. The one who goes home having pleased God is the repentant, the one who knows his weaknesses, who lives with a repentant heart. Self-righteousness is nothing less than self-glorification. In effect self-righteousness says to God, "I don¹t really need you. I¹m good as it is. Look at me, how pleasing I am."
The attitude of the tax collector is pleasing because it is humble. A true humility recognizes the truth, and the truth is that we are in need of repentance all the time. We are always in need of change in our lives. One who prays, "Be merciful to me a sinner", is one who knows he depends on God and that dependence is the greatest truth of all. "For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).
Sometimes it takes a shocking incident, as the lady in Flannery O¹Conner¹s story experienced, to make us realize how humble we should be. To approach life with the arrogance of self-righteousness ultimately kills goodness. Humility, on the other hand, opens us to the truth of who we are before God and true goodness to which we are called.