Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: “Walking in Self-enforced Humility”
Jeremiah 14: 17-22
2 Timothy 4: 6-8; 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14
Today’s gospel is about the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. On one hand, the Pharisees were respected for they were pious, religious and many of them were sincere in what they were doing. Some may have been hypocritical but most were sincere, ultra-conservative, and hyper religious. On the other hand, there are the tax collectors. We would easily say that they are corrupt, and they were seen as friends of the enemy – of Rome or the oppressor. They took advantage of their fellow Jews. They hated their fellow tax collectors. It was a standard for them to collect more and enrich themselves so they were viewed as illegally accumulating wealth for themselves.
Between, the two characters, it would seem that the Pharisee was more holy. The tax collector was the scum of the earth and that he had no right to face God. This is the reason that it was so difficult for the hearers of Jesus to accept what He said that it was the tax collector who went home justified. The tax collector knew that he was not worthy, so his head was bowed down and he was humble. The Pharisee had this confidence in his own righteousness and told the Lord that he prayed, he fasted twice a week, and he tithed. The tax collector said, “Lord, have mercy on me. Without You, without Your grace, I am dead. I am in trouble.” These two are poles apart. They are very different. The 1st century Jew would definitely favor the Pharisee over the worst of the dregs of society.
Jesus Christ was not condemning the deeds of Pharisee – praying, fasting, doing good works, committing in ministry. If we are doing these things, excel in them. Grow in them. Increase in them. What is wrong is if we put our confidence in these things. If these are our claim to fame in the kingdom of God, then, we will fall short. All of us cannot make it apart from the grace of God. Grace is given, not earned. It is wrong when we trust in our own righteousness and thinking of ourselves as better than others. We cannot claim to be better than others, that we are holier than others. Only by grace can we enter and do we stand.
In Matthew 9, the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why are You eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” The sinners mentioned here are irreligious Jews, those who do not go to Church regularly and are not committed. It is saying, “They don’t measure up to my standard, to my example. They are nominal Christians or the Sunday Christians.” The point of doing good works is for the benefit of others, particularly our needy brothers. It is not to earn praise from others, but it is so that others are lifted up because they are in need of our help. If we have this attitude of superiority, of elitism, of discrimination, then, we are going the wrong way.
We are to help our brothers whom we are one with. Think solidarity, not superiority. There is this mind-set that some people are blessed, with good health, with no problems because they say they obey God, they give in Church, and they raise their children well. They think those who are sick or having difficulty are those that do not obey God. God is the Judge! The reason we see needs is because our task is to minister and to heal, and to minister is to meet a need.
There are those whose task is to judge and to sentence like the law enforcers. People get jailed because they break the law. When we minister to those in jail, we don’t say, “You rot there because you committed a crime,” but instead, we address their loneliness and their sense of rejection from society. Our task is not to sentence them, but to comfort them and to remind them that even though they fall short, God still loves them.
We have a spiritual yardstick and we judge people by them. Is your Church spirit-filled? Is your Mass anointed? Do people in your service cry? Do they raise their hands? Do they dance, jump, and run in the aisles? Are they slain in the spirit? Do they speak in tongues? Do they prophesy or operate in the Spirit? If the answer is yes, then, the church is considered made. If not, then it is dead. These things are not wrong, but when we think that we are better when we have these things, that is when it is wrong. We need to have a humble heart. We also ask, “Is your pastor, your preacher spirit-filled? Does he hear from God? Is he a fiery preacher? Sometimes, the question is not bad, but what’s behind the question can be bad.
People may not be in what we consider righteous, and they are not yet there; but God deals with them. They are brothers for whom Christ died and for whom the Spirit moves and works. Our weakest brother is our brother whom Christ died for. We are one. It is oneness; unity. Do not think of ourselves as better than others and more deserving in the eyes of God. The Scripture says that the wealth of the unrighteous goes to the righteous, but who are the righteous?
Weaknesses are needs, not reasons to look down on people and condemn them. When we compare ourselves to them and show that they are lower than we are and exalt ourselves, then, that is when we are erring. St. Paul said, “I am being poured out as an offering.” We are to empty ourselves, not to accumulate for ourselves. We are to be empty, not full of ourselves for the sake of others. St. Paul calls this an offering, a libation.
It is easy to misunderstand Jesus. Jesus is not at all condoning or justifying or trivializing sin. He is telling us not to be haughty and not to be arrogant and to have confidence in our righteousness. All our righteousness is as filthy rags before God, and yet God justifies and He lifts us up. All that Jesus asks in return is not to look down on others because He did not look down on us. Don’t think we are better; we are to be humble.
In the book of Ecclesiasticus 35, it says that the prayer of the lowly, the humble, pierces the clouds and it will not rest until it reaches its goal. The humble gets into kingdom ahead of the arrogant, and self-confident. In the Parable of the Vineyard, there were those who work for longer hours than the others. Those who worked for longer hours thought they deserved more and better than those who worked for a short time. Imagine this situation while waiting until the last hour where the workers were boasting of their degrees or what they have accomplished. These degrees won’t matter if no one would employ them. Apart from the grace of employment of the lord of the vineyard, their families will starve and they will die. The denarius was a blessing. Let us not think that we are better than others.
There is the story of St. Peter at the heaven’s door where he would ask, “Why will I let you in?” Some would enumerate what good deeds they did. Some would say, “I do not have anything to boast of except for the grace and mercy of God.” The latter are those that were able to enter heaven, not those who trusted their abilities and what they did. By grace we have been saved through faith, and not of ourselves; it is the gift of God. No one can boast!
To be justified is to be restored in a right relationship with God. Who put us in a right relationship with God? It is God Himself. God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to Himself because we have all gone astray. He put us back in a right relationship with Himself. It is something graciously bestowed, not earned. When we get this, our relationship with God is more meaningful, and we will have peace.
Our works will be a response, not a prerequisite. Our works are an expression, a demonstration of our relationship, not a qualification for a right relationship. We give; we do good works because we are grateful because God put us back to a right relationship with Him. We give not to earn the approval of God but we respond to God's goodness in our lives. We all receive grace and nobody can earn it. We cannot earn God’s grace for it is given and bestowed.
The weak need a compassionate physician, not a book-throwing prosecutor. We have to learn righteousness, not earn it. Jesus is not saying to be like the tax collector in deeds but be like him in his attitude, in his humility. Be like the Pharisee in his deeds and in his belief, but do not be like him in his attitude. Continue to do good works. Please God with our good works. Don’t waste them by making them our identity, our resume, our source of confidence, value, holiness, righteousness and self-esteem rather than God’s grace. Stop thinking that we are better than the others.
If we are haughty, Jesus is saying that we would be better off failing at the things we are trying to be good at and asking mercy like the tax collector. Our trust should not be in our own righteousness. We sing, “My life is in You, Lord. My strength is in You. My hope is in You.” Only by grace can we stand. Only by grace do we live, move and have our being. Have the right attitude because this is the way it is in the kingdom of our God.