Homily Wk 30 Yr c 2013
I heard of a survey undertaken amongst a group of Catholic University students which asked them, “if you were to die tonight and appear at the gates of heaven, what’s your admission ticket?” Nearly all of them said it would be their good character and behaviour. Perhaps many of us might have said the same. I think I might have. As if in some way access to heaven is some kind of beauty contest based on how good I have been and all the good stuff I have done whilst alive. Thank God it’s not, because if it was, I know that I have very little to offer. If I am realistic, I probably deserve admission to a place that is a lot hotter than heaven!
The response those students made is similar to the strategy used by the Pharisee in the parable that we’ve just heard in this Sunday’s Gospel, about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Tax collectors were particularly despised by the Jewish people, as they collected taxes on behalf of the occupying Roman Empire, and consequently were considered as sinners.
As we listen to this parable today, the Pharisee strikes us as conceited. His real problem, though, is that he, like the students, maybe some of us, is out of touch with reality. And, by the way, being out of touch with reality is the definition of insanity.
The Reality is that we are creatures and God is the creator. Heaven is the experience of sharing intimately in God’s inner life, participating in his immortality and friendship. On the basis of our own merits, we have little claim to any of this, to heaven.
In fact, standing on our own merits, we have absolutely no claim whatsoever on God. A claim is based on justice. Justice is about receiving our due and paying what we owe. We receive our very existence and all we need to sustain that existence from God. Therefore we owe him everything – perfect love, perfect honor, perfect obedience, and perfect worship. Showing up at mass from time to time, tossing a few quid in the basket, and trying to be basically decent people, doesn’t quite cover what we owe God. There is a huge gap between us and God.
That’s why the Father sent the Son. Through his act of perfect humility, perfect obedience and perfect love on the cross, Jesus paid the debt that the entire human race owed to God, he justified us – that is, HE put us right with God. That’s justice. And the justice of God is always accompanied by mercy. Mercy. Another name for God’s grace. A share in the divine life.
Consequently, we do not need to be under an illusion like the Pharisee, that we deserve salvation based on our good deeds. We might list our achievements when applying for a job, or the good things we do in the parish when applying for a school place for our kids, but in regard to our eternal salvation, it doesn’t work like that. What was it the first reading from Ecclesiasticus said? It said ‘the Lord is a judge, who is no respecter of personages.’ Lists of our good deeds and behaviour don’t impress God. That’s why the tax collector went home at rights with God and the Pharisee didn’t. Even though he was a ‘good’ man. But that goodness was only based on how good he was at keeping the 613 commandments in the Jewish law. Many of us probably struggle with the 10 Commandments and that’s assuming we can remember them! We’ll have a test in a minute! For myself, I can remember the two that Jesus gave us, love of God and love of neighbour.
So the message clear — it’s all grace!
Whatever natural blessings we enjoy — health, job, family, education – are gifts. Did we have to work at all to attain what we have? Usually. But we were created out of nothing. Our very existence and ability to work is a gift. If we enjoy a personal, intimate relationship with God as our Father and Jesus as our brother, that’s all gift as well. Do we have to work spiritually to do God’s will and walk in the path of good works that God has marked out for us? Of course. But the very ability to know God’s will and love as God loves, is pure grace.
The tax collector was under no illusions: he knew that he deserved nothing but judgment alone. So he asked for mercy. This is the sane thing to do. The Pharisee, under the illusion that his works made him righteous, didn’t think he needed grace, so didn’t ask.
In fact the God he prayed to – was himself. That’s insane. He was seriously out of touch with reality.
Let me close, with a little anecdote.
In Vienna in Austria there is a church in which the former ruling family in Austria, the Hapsburgs, are buried. When royal funerals used to arrive the mourners knocked at the door of the church to be allowed in. A porter inside would ask ‘Who is it that desires admission here?’ A guard would call out, ‘His apostolic majesty, the emperor’. The porter would answer, ‘I don’t know him’. They would knock a second time, and again the porter would ask “Who is it that desires admission here?’ The funeral guard outside would announce, ‘The highest emperor’. A second time the porter would say, ‘I don’t know him’. A third time they would knock on the door and the porter would ask,” Who is it that desires admission here?’ The third time the answer would be, ‘A poor sinner, your brother.’
The royal family were then allowed into the church for burial, because they had admitted that their deceased, the most important person in the land, was in fact, a poor sinner in need of the mercy of God.
My friends, we are all called to make the journey from pride to humility, to arrive at the point where we can say like the tax-collector, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Amen.