Homily: Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner

October 27, 2019 – Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18 / 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 / Luke 18:9-14

I will be delivering the following homily at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis today:

In 1993, I stepped down from my position as a head football coach. The following fall, as the new football season was starting, the Indianapolis Star published their annual high school pigskin preview. In the article devoted to the football program I had left, an administrator at the school was quoted as saying that the new coach was “finally getting kids excited about playing football again.” That was awesome to read in our city-wide paper.

In 2017, I stepped down from my role as a school principal. After the new principal had been on the job for a few weeks, the school newspaper published a quote from one of the Student Council leaders that described the new principal as “a breath of fresh air.” That was pretty special, too.

I have always prided myself on the fact that I have never been fired from a job.

In hindsight, I was apparently just intuitive enough – or self-aware enough – to leave jobs before they had the chance to fire me.

************

Whenever I am asked what I gained from my formation as a deacon, the answer comes easily. The greatest gift I was given by the formation process was a deeper sense of self-awareness. I feel like I came out of it with a true sense of who I was. I understood the good and the bad, my strengths and my weaknesses. I realized I was not as smart or talented or indispensable as I thought I was; nor was I as unlovable or insecure or inept as I felt at times.

I walked away with a self-awareness that told me I was broken but salvageable. On my own I might survive; with God the possibilities were limitless. I must depend on God.

A greater self-awareness led me to a number of other important realizations:

  • While I had gifts to share with the world, those gifts were not of my own making.
  • God gave me certain gifts and gave others different gifts.
  • My gifts do not make me more valuable or entitled than anyone else, just as my lack of certain gifts does not make me less valuable or

These types of realizations have helped me to be less judgmental toward others. I am still a work in progress in my efforts to be nonjudgmental, but I am at least in tune with my need to improve.

The topic of self-awareness and judgment of others is the focus of today’s readings. The prophet Sirach tells us in the first reading: The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites…The one who serves God willingly is heard.

If you have ever heard me publicly lead prayer, you likely heard me include the following two components in that prayer: I start by saying, “Good and gracious God, we thank you for the gift of another day.” This begins prayer with gratitude and humility. It acknowledges that we are mere vessels and all gifts come from God. We thank Him for that.

I end prayers with these words: “May everything we do today and always be done to glorify You.” We honor Him – glorify Him – when we use our gifts to serve others rather than for personal gain. 

Sirach reminds us that God does not play favorites. All who accept the gifts He has given them and use them to serve God and others will be heard.

Saint Paul also recognized that it was God who deserved the credit for everything he had accomplished in his life. In his second letter to Timothy, he wrote, the Lord stood by me and gave me strength…the Lord rescued me from every evil threat…to him be glory forever and ever. 

Paul was anticipating his death when he wrote this letter to Timothy. He sat in prison, reflecting on his life and offering words of advice to his young protégé. He knew it was important to impress upon Timothy a need to lean into God – to depend on Him.

He also wanted Timothy to have confidence. After all, Paul was a big name. He had traveled extensively and had grown the Church with amazing success. Timothy was likely thinking he was underqualified and not nearly as capable as Paul.

Paul used these words to reassure him: I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.

He did not say he had competed better than others or had won the race. He simply said he kept the faith, did his best, and was persistent in doing God’s work. He encouraged Timothy to do the same.

In the Gospel of Luke, the topics of self-awareness and judgment are further explored when Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

The two went to the temple to pray. We heard the following prayer from the Pharisee: ‘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.’

The prayer of the tax collector was much simpler: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

The problem with what the Pharisee had to say was not that he was lying or inaccurate. I feel comfortable taking him at his word that he was not greedy or dishonest or adulterous. I think he really did fast twice a week and pay tithes on his whole income. These actions would have been in accordance with Jewish law and Pharisees strictly adhered to such laws.

The problem was not what was said, but rather how it was said and what was not said.

Sirach tells us that God plays no favorites, so on judgment day we will all be judged by the same standard. We will not be judged using an arbitrary rank order system that compares us to others. Nor should we judge ourselves or others in that way.

Fundamentally, a Christian disciple must be aware of his own sinfulness or brokenness and recognize that he is completely dependent on God’s graciousness and mercy.

The Pharisee focused on what he wasn’t and what he did.

He wasn’t greedy or dishonest or adulterous. God knew that. What God wanted to hear from the Pharisee was an indication of self-awareness. The Pharisee was judgmental and insensitive and self-centered. He would have been better off telling God what he was rather than what he wasn’t.

The Pharisee did fast and tithe appropriately. God knew that. What God wanted to hear from the Pharisee was where he had failed. He wanted to hear what the Pharisee did not do.

What God wanted to hear, what he wants to hear from us, is that we sometimes fall short in our efforts to be the best version of ourselves; we often fail to do the work we were called to do; we need his mercy; and we want to do better and need His help going forward.

What God wants to hear from us is what he heard from the tax collector: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

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