Sunday, October 27, 2013

How to Make the Pharisee’s Prayer Acceptable to the Lord

Icon of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 27, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 18: 9-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2013]


I think we need to help the Pharisee with his prayer.

In its present form, it’s obviously not acceptable to Jesus.  Our Lord makes that clear at the end of the parable when he says, “I tell you the [tax collector] went home justified, not the [Pharisee].”

But I think his prayer could be made acceptable—or at least a lot more acceptable—with a few modifications (presuming, of course, that these modifications were made sincerely by the Pharisee himself!).

The original prayer read as follows: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

Here now is the modified version: “O God, I thank you for the grace you have given me to avoid certain sins like greed and dishonesty and adultery—since without this grace it would be impossible for me to avoid these or any other sins in my life.  But, unfortunately, I am prideful and arrogant and condescending, and I really don’t think I need you very much.  So God, please be merciful to me, a sinner.” 

That prayer would have been much more acceptable to God for the simple reason that it would have been rooted in self-knowledge and in truth!  Perhaps this Pharisee had actually been able to resist greed and adultery and many other sins over the years.  That’s great!  But he was not able to stay away from those things by his own grace and power (which is what his original prayer indicated that he believed!).  Rather, it was by the grace of God that he was able to avoid all those evils and act righteously.  And so it is with us.  This is why whenever we see somebody doing something sinful that we don’t presently do (or perhaps have never done), we should say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We should say that because it’s true!

If it was not for the grace of God we would be just as bad—or worse!

But even if we have, by the Lord’s grace, been able to avoid some sins, we certainly have not been able to avoid ALL sins—and if we truly know ourselves we will be keenly aware of that fact.

Which only goes to show that this Pharisee did NOT know himself very well!  His original prayer indicated that he had absolutely no sense whatsoever of how prideful and arrogant and condescending he was—which is why that admission had to be present in his modified prayer in order to make it acceptable to God.

Applying this now to ourselves: I think that some Catholics believe that they impress the priest when they go into the confessional and say to him, “Father, I don’t have any sins.”

Believe me, my brothers and sisters, that does not impress the priest!  If anything, it DE-presses him—because a statement like that indicates the penitent really doesn’t know himself (or herself as the case might be)!

We all sin every day—and if we truly know ourselves we will recognize that fact.  We may not be sinning in big ways (although if you believe the statistic Fr. McCaffrey shared in his homily last week—that 85% of Catholic couples are using artificial contraception—then many ARE sinning seriously); but even if we’re only committing little sins of anger and gossip and selfishness every day, the fact is we’re still committing sins that need to be repented of and taken away!

What really impresses me (and I dare say what impresses most priests) is when somebody comes into the confessional who seems to really be in touch with many of the ways that he or she offends God and other people.  THAT’S impressive, because it shows that the person really knows himself or herself (like the tax collector in this parable really knew himself); and because it indicates that the person is humble, and wants to continue on the road to holiness and, ultimately, heaven.

In this regard, I’m glad that today’s second reading from 2 Timothy 4 is paired up with this gospel passage from Luke 18.  Here we have St. Paul, who knows that he’s likely to be martyred in the near future, writing to Timothy about the life he’s led since his conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  He says, “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.  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.”

Now if we read that passage in isolation, we might get the idea that Paul was a guy who had an exalted opinion of himself, like the Pharisee in this parable had an exalted opinion of himself.

But that’s not the case, as Timothy would certainly tell us.  Paul was not conscious of any serious sin in himself, that’s true; but he was definitely in touch with the fact that he was still a sinner in need of forgiveness, and that whatever goodness was present in him in his post-conversion life was there because of God’s saving grace!  He had already told Timothy as much in a previous letter, when he said, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, that he has made me his servant and judged me faithful.  I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance; but because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully, and the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.  You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I myself am the worst.  But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might an example to those who would later have faith in him.”

Paul gives a very similar message in one line of 1 Corinthians 15 when he says, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

These are not the kinds of things that the Pharisee in this parable would say; these are the kinds of things the humble tax collector would say.

There are two extremes that must always be avoided in this life, my brothers and sisters: we must avoid thinking too much of ourselves (which, of course was the error of the Pharisee); but, at the same time, we must avoid thinking too little of ourselves (which is an error that’s equally as bad, because it can easily lead to despair).

St. Paul had the balance—as did the tax collector in this parable!  The tax collector knew his sins, just like Paul knew his.  But he also believed that God loved him enough to forgive him.  In other words, the tax collector knew he was a sinner, but he also believed that, in God’s eyes, he was worth pardoning!  If he hadn’t believed both those things, he would never have said the prayer that he said. 

You don’t ask for mercy like he did, unless you actually believe that it’s possible for you to receive it.

Maybe all this—maybe all that I’ve said in this homily today—explains why more people don’t go to confession  on a regular basis: either they don’t believe they need it because they think they don’t sin, or they believe they’re too far gone and beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

As I hopefully have made clear this morning, both those perspectives are wrong.

St. Paul knew that; the tax collector in this parable knew that.

And hopefully, now, so do we.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Importance of Doing the Right Thing Even When It’s Not the Easy Thing

Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis gave Glen James a citation in Boston.

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 13, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Kings 5; 2 Timothy 2: 8-13; Luke 17: 11-19.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2013]


It’s a story many of you are familiar with, I’m sure.  Here’s how Boston Globe columnist Peter Schworm told it in an article he wrote a couple of weeks ago:

Under the canopy at the T.J. Maxx store, Glen James sat among the shopping carts, shaded from the late-summer sun.  As shoppers bustled through the South Bay plaza Saturday, James proofread a letter, resting on the bag he brings with him when he panhandles.

As he read, James noticed a young man nearby, sitting on an overturned carriage.  He had a bag, too, a black backpack at his feet.  James went back to his letter.

When James looked up again, the man was gone.  But his bag was still there.

After a time, James went over to see what had been left behind.  Inside, he found $2,400 in cash and nearly $40,000 in travelers checks, along with a passport and personal papers.  For a homeless man who subsists on food stamps and spare change, it was a staggering sum, maybe even a chance at a new life.

But James, a slight, bespectacled man in his mid-50s who says he has been homeless for five years, said the thought of keeping the money never crossed his mind.

“Even if I were desperate for money, I would not have kept even a penny of the money found,” he said Monday in a handwritten statement.  “God has always very well looked after me.”

James immediately flagged down police, who in short order returned the bag to its owner, a student visiting Boston from China.  James, a man who lives in a homeless shelter and relies on charity for change to wash his clothes, had returned a small fortune without a second thought.


He did the right thing—which, for most people in his situation would not have been the easy thing to do.

But then again, Jesus never said that doing the right thing would be the easy thing! 

In today’s first reading we heard that Naaman, the Syrian army commander who was afflicted with leprosy, went to the Jordan River, jumped in seven times, and was cured.

He did that because the prophet Elisha had told him to.

But for Naaman that was not the easy thing to do, nor was it the pleasant thing to do.  In fact, when Elisha first instructed him on the matter, Naaman got really upset!  He wanted Elisha to cure him with some spectacular ritual, or by having him bathe in one of the great rivers of his native Syria, not in the lowly Jordan River.

But, as we heard a few moments ago, Naaman eventually did the right thing.

So did the leper in today’s gospel who returned to Jesus after he realized that our Lord had healed him of his leprosy.  And it seems like that was not the easy thing for him to do either.  I say that because it’s pretty clear from the way the story is written that this was a gradual healing.  It didn’t happen instantaneously.  It didn’t happen when these men were physically in the presence of Jesus; it occurred afterward.  The text says, “As they were going, they were cleansed.”

So how far had they gone before they came to the awareness that something great had happened to them?  How far had they journeyed away from Jesus before they knew that they had been healed?  Five miles? Ten miles?  Fifteen miles or more?

We don’t know exactly—but it was probably far enough to make it extremely inconvenient and difficult to go back. 

So nine of them didn’t bother.  Nine of them, apparently, didn’t even try.

We are all challenged every day to do the right things out of love for Jesus: to say “thank you” to people who help us; to forgive one another; to be patient; to be pure; to be truthful; to be charitable—and it’s often not easy!  Next weekend, Fr. Daniel McCaffrey will be here challenging couples to do the right thing in their marriages.

And sometimes we fail.  But the good news is that even if we fail and do the wrong thing in a given situation, we can still do the right thing in response to having done the wrong thing by repenting, and confessing (if necessary), and thus we can be restored to grace.  As St. Paul puts it in today’s second reading, “[Even] if we are unfaithful, he [Jesus] remains faithful.”

By the way, this is why Pope Francis said in an interview a few weeks ago that the “proclamation of the love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”  The secular press misinterpreted that to mean that the Holy Father was downplaying the importance of the commandments.  Wrong!  What the Pope was saying is that we need to focus on God’s love first whenever we discuss or consider the commandments, because God’s love is primary.  St. Paul says here that Jesus Christ always remains faithful, even when we don’t.  In other words, he always loves us (even when we’re in the state of mortal sin!).  But he loves us too much allow us to stay in the state of sin!  And so the perfect and faithful love of Jesus is always calling us to repentance, so that we can be restored to grace.

Doing the right thing by repenting brings the reward of forgiveness—and the reward of eternal life if we persevere in the state of grace.

Doing the right thing in other dimensions of life also brings a reward—in eternity, most definitely; but sometimes also here on this earth.

And that’s a great bonus whenever it happens.  Naaman’s reward, for example, was a physical healing.  He was cured of his leprosy.

As for Glen James, when his story became public a few weeks ago, a 27-year-old man from Virginia named Ethan Whittington (who’s never even been to Boston where James lives!) was inspired to do something.  He decided to start an online fund to help Mr. James get off the streets and get the medical help he needs for his chronic illness (he has Meniere’s Disease—an inner ear disorder).  Well, when I last checked it on Friday morning, the total raised from people all over the country was over $157,000!

A pretty nice earthly reward for doing the right thing.  He gave up a little more than $42,000, and he’ll end up with at least $157,000.

May Glen James’ story inspire us to do the right thing even when there’s no earthly reward attached—and especially when doing the right thing is not the easy thing.