FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 27, 2019:
Earlier this week, I had the chance to visit some friends that I haven’t seen in about three years in New York City. Aside from their poor choice in sports teams, New York City is an amazing place. This city of over 8 million people has an energy and diversity that is very exciting to be a part of. There is always something going on in New York – new buildings are constantly going up, there are endless artistic experience – the museums, the symphony, Broadway. It is a place of seemingly endless creativity. There’s even a saying that captures this spirit – locals like to say that New York will be a great city – if they ever finish it. It is a place where virtually every aspect of the city – the people, the places, the buildings, the communities – are constantly evolving and changing. It is an endless work in progress.
Our Gospel today wants to say something similar about being works in progress as it picks up from last week when Jesus told us to “pray always without becoming weary.” If last week’s message was about being persistent in our faith life, this week wants to remind us that it is okay to acknowledge that we are all still works in progress.
Jesus gives us this story of two believers - the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both believe in the same God, both belong to the same religion and both worship in the same temple. But, at the end of the day, one of them goes home at peace with God and the other doesn’t. The Pharisees were disciplined and devout men of religion. They were serious believers who committed themselves to a strict life of prayer and observance of God’s Law. In fact, they went far beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week even though they were only required to fast once a year. They gave tithes on all their income, not just parts of it. When the Pharisee said, “I am not like other people,” he wasn’t kidding. In fact, I bet few of us today could measure up to the external standards of the Pharisees. The Pharisees acted as though they were finished products. They had achieve religious perfection and should be admired and emulated for it. There was no room for them to grow in God’s plan. They were certain that they were better than the rest.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. They worked for the Romans occupiers, mixed with them and constantly handled their unclean money. They were said to be in a state of religious impurity. Tax collectors were considered public sinners of the highest grade. But the tax collector in our story still hoped for salvation. He knew that God was not done with him yet and in humility placed himself in God’s tender care.
Sometimes, especially in the church, we can create the impression that the church is meant only for the perfect. And that could not be further from the truth. Pope Francis understands well our need to realize that we are not completed projects, but always on the road to closeness with God. In The Joy of the Gospel, he said for example, “The Eucharist…is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak…Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a [tollbooth]; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”
Simply doing all of the external prayers, devotions and other acts of faith we can muster doesn’t save us. God isn’t waiting for us to complete 1,000 rosaries, or donate $10,000, or receive the Eucharist 5,000 times. Now, these are all good things designed to lead us closer to God, but they are not meant to be a checklist for salvation or a source of our self-righteousness. But if all that we do never converts our heart to be more like God’s heart, they are not accomplishing their goal. And this is the key difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus told this parable because the Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
The tax collector trusted in his need for God’s mercy. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knew that he was a work in progress and that God was the master craftsman who would help him become the person he was created to be. And their story is today our story. Just like them, we too have come to God’s house today to offer our prayers. May our prayerful hearts be the same the tax collector. God isn’t finished with us yet. He is still working on us. We are clay in the potter’s hands – and our prayer should be that he shapes us as He wants.
In fact, we already know the most powerful prayer by heart: Thy will be done. Make of me what you will – not what I will. Let us again today bow our heads, fall to our knees, humble our hearts and whisper the words God is waiting to hear. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” I am a work in progress. You’re not finished with me yet. And I am grateful for your love, your compassion, your mercy and the time you give me to grow as your son, your daughter. This is the gift that God values above all others: the prayers of a humble heart. Let us offer those prayers today and always until God is finished with us.
May the Lord give you peace.