An interesting contrast presents itself in this Sunday’s scriptures: in the second reading, from the Second Letter to Timothy, Saint Paul uses the image of a successful athlete to describe his journey of faith. He says: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,” and later, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Tim 4:7-8, 17).
While I am leaving out the full context for brevity, even in the broader passage it sounds as though Paul was doing God a favor through his ministry and expecting a crown as his reward. That is not, of course, what Paul was getting at, but his rhetoric makes us think how vaunting one’s strength and accomplishments was as common in Paul’s time as it is in our own. How does this culture of self-glorification that we see so clearly in our famous athletes and entertainment stars affect our thinking and the movements of our hearts when it comes to our religious faith?
By comparison, in the first reading from Sirach, the responsorial Psalm, and the Gospel we see something quite different: instead of a spirit of boastfulness the weakness and lowliness of many of the Lord’s most faithful followers is noted. We read in Sirach: “The Lord is a God of justice who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed. The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint” (Sir 35:16-17). The Psalmist sounds the same note: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Ps 34:7). It is important to remember, however, that we can only hear the cry of the poor—and we can only freely accept God’s gifts of salvation and righteousness—when we are free from the illusions of grandeur and self-sufficiency.
In the Gospel from Saint Luke Jesus himself develops this theme by extolling the humility of the tax collector, who realizes that it is by the mercy of God and not his own merit that he will find salvation: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). He also addresses the illusions that keep us from seeing our neediness, as Saint Luke points out in his introduction to Jesus’ words: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (Luke 18:9).
Going back to Paul, he rejoiced not so much in his own achievements—though Paul did struggle with boasting—as in the way God’s grace worked through him to achieve its divine purpose: “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength” (2 Tim 4:17). Like Paul, all of us have our moments when we are filled with self-importance and fail to see that it is the grace of God working within us that brings about our accomplishments, whatever they may be.
Today’s scriptures teach us that when we avoid the illusions of pride that can cloud our judgment, we are naturally led to maintain a spirit of humility and thus to cooperate with God’s divine grace, ennobling our own human nature in the process. Let it be our prayer that together with the tax collector in today’s Gospel we might be at peace saying in our hearts: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.