Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 27th, 2019
Sir. 35:12-14, 16-18 2 Tm. 4:6-8, 16-18 Lk. 18:9-14
“Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
This is the perfect prayer, and like the Our Father, it comes to us from our Teacher, Jesus. It reminds us of four essential realities for the Christian, truths that, if ignored or forgotten, rob us of the very heart of our faith.
Notice how the prayer begins: “Oh…” It does not begin simply by addressing God directly, nor by any title. Rather it begins with this almost meaningless word. However, when it precedes a person’s name like this, it carries tremendous meaning: in this case, it carries a plea. To address the Blessed Trinity as “Oh God…” reminds us of the necessity of humility: such a person is crying out to God in need and begging Him to draw near. As St. Paul writes of Jesus to the Philippians “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped,” (Philippians 2:5-6). This simple beginning is a humble beginning; we immediately place God above ourselves not to distance Him from us, but to place ourselves in His Presence, remembering what was promised in the psalms “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn,” (Psalm 51:19).
With humility we address God Himself. We are Christians: those of us who are baptized are children of God, so why would God not hear and act upon the prayers of His own children? We address Him with confidence and knowledge, for we not only know to whom we are speaking, but we know Him personally. We not only believe God exists, but we believe we are in such a relationship with Him that we can know Him to some degree and, more importantly, He knows us. We can speak to Him; He is not a distant God, nor a statue or wooden idol with a strange appearance, nor is the word “God” used as a placeholder for a name we do not actually know. We address Him as “God” because His Name is so sacred and holy we honor Him by not speaking it. More importantly, as His children, it would dishonor our Father to address Him by Name, as it would dishonor our earthly parents if we did the same. Finally, when we address Him as God we acknowledge not merely Him, but Who He Is in our life: He is our God, our first and greatest love, the object of our worship, our service, and all else.
This prayer also reminds us about the kind of God we believe in and worship: a merciful God. Not simply a nice or kind God, a God of favors, a God of low-expectations and demands. We believe in a God that is radically different from every deity ever known: a God Who is perfectly justified in destroying us because of our sins, but relents in doing so. A God that has created the universe in a particular way, knit it together by certain laws, with certain consequences when those laws are broken. And yet even when we break those laws, if we experience and express genuine contrition, God will withhold His wrath and spare us the ultimate consequence. As St. James writes in his letter, “…mercy triumphs over judgment,” (James 2:13). Recall the last time you went to confession, if you can: when you had confessed your sins, when you stood before your Divine Judge and accused yourself of every crime, what words did you first hear from the mouth of the priest? “God the Father of Mercies…” (2 Corinthians 1:3). There is no god more merciful than our God, no God that has shown such patience, such generosity, such love to such undeserving creatures. This is the God who sent His Son, Jesus, God-in-Flesh who spared the woman caught in adultery though He, being without sin, was perfectly justified in casting the first stone (John 8:1-11). He would not stone the guilty woman caught in her sin, yet He would deign to be crucified for the sins of us all.
Finally this prayer reminds us of the one thing, of all things in our Christian faith, which we are so quick to forget: we are sinners. It is not a popular thing to accept about ourselves. It does not feel good to remember that we are so often rebels and traitors toward our God who loves us. Rather we get caught up in our own perceived holiness and, like the Pharisee, think “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity…” But you are! Does not St. Paul write that “…all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God?” (Romans 3:23). And does not St. John write in his first letter “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, ‘We have not sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word is not in us,” (1 John 1:8-10). We are sinners, and by admitting this we admit that we need a savior. Salvation is for those in need of saving, and if we cannot see and accept that we are sinners, that we sin, then Heaven is not for us. If we never sinned, we would already be in Heaven!
Yet we have all sinned. Whether you have been to confession recently or not, you have sinned. Perhaps not mortally, perhaps not serious enough that your conscience presses you to come to the Lord for forgiveness, but sin is a part of our daily reality, if we are honest with ourselves. And I say PRAISE GOD that we are sinners! For if we were not sinners, we would never experience the mercy of God. Praise God that He sees us as sinners in need of salvation; praise God that He chose, in His mercy, to do something to aid us when, truly, He was under no obligation to do so. He owed us nothing: we owed Him everything and rejected Him in our sin. Yet His mercy is so vast, His love for us so intense, that He chose mercy instead of condemnation, but only mercy for those who will accept it. Praise God we are not angels, for no angel has ever experienced God’s mercy. The angels of Heaven are strangers to His mercy because they have never needed it; the demons of hell have never experienced God’s mercy because they will never accept it. Yet we can experience His mercy in this life whenever we go to confession, whenever we do what the demons will not and cannot do: when we repent of our sins, admit our faults to God, resolve to do better, and receive His mercy. Praise God for this!
We are sinners, but we were never meant to be this way; we were meant to be more like the angels, in perfect and total communion with God in all holiness and love, in all justice and good. But our first ancestors rejected all of that when they obeyed the Serpent instead of their God, when they sought to be their own gods: when pride overshadowed their humility. It was pride that led Satan to rebel against God; it was pride that led Adam and Eve to do the same. What brings a sinner back into relationship with God? Humility: humility is the only sword that can slay the dragon of pride, and the only disposition of heart that can beat in union with the Heart of God. Does not our First Reading say “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay?” God Himself is without pride; we see this in His Son, who came to Earth in all humility, who loved only God and His neighbor but never Himself. For God is Love (1 John 4:8, 16) and Love, St. Paul writes, “…is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
When we are humble, therefore, when we live in the truth, we are like God; when we are prideful, when we fall for the illusion that we are our own lord and master, we are like Satan, our Enemy, who is forever banished from Heaven not by God’s choice, but his own. Without humility we cannot be saved at all; when we are proud our hearts are too full of ourselves to allow God any place there. If we will not humbly accept God as our Lord and Jesus as our Savior, if God is only in our minds but not in our hearts, how can we keep the Greatest Commandment to “…love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” (Matthew 22:37)? Without humility we cannot say at the end of our lives the words of St. Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.”
Jesus died and is yet dying to pour out His mercy; have you ever wondered why His Heart, though He rose from the dead, was never healed? It is so that it can never be shut to you! Yet only with humility can our own proud hearts be opened to Jesus in the same way: unless our hearts are pierced with sorrow for our sins, we can never hate our sins enough to be free of them, and if we cannot hate our sins, then we cannot ever fully love God. And if we cannot love God, how can the Lord rescue us “…from every evil threat and bring [us] safely to his kingdom?” How can He “…stand by [us] and give [us] strength…” if we think we are strong enough on our own without His help? Pray every day the prayer of the tax collector, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Let the truth of this simple prayer transform your heart, so that instead of praying the proud words of the Pharisee—“O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity”—you might one day, in His presence, say, in the words of the Psalms, “I will praise you with all my heart, and glorify your name forever, Lord my God. Your mercy to me is great; you have rescued me from the depths of [Hell],” (Psalm 86:12-13).