10th Sunday after Pentecost
Everyone who exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
The spectacle offered to us in today’s Gospel reading should put us on our guard against the Pharisee that we all have hidden in us. The pharisee goes up to the Temple to pray, but he does not pray. Rather, he praises himself. It’s all about him. Perhaps if he had limited himself to thanking God for all the good things that God allowed him to perform by His grace, his prayer would have been acceptable. The problem is that he goes further and scorns the Publican upon whom he passes judgment, and rashly so.
The Publican, on the other hand, has no praise for himself. Were his prayer to resemble that of the pharisee, it might have gone something like this: “Lord, it is true that I am a sinner. I cheat, I lie, I steal. But really, I don’t have an option. The social context is such that if I don’t do these things, I will starve to death with my family. And by the way, I do thank you for not having the disgusting pride of that Pharisee over there who thinks he’s holy. At least I know I’m a sinner. In that, I must be agreeable to You. Thank You, Lord, for being who I am, and helping me to feel good about myself.” But no, the Publican does none of those things, for if he did, he also would be a Pharisee. His prayer is authentic. The Pharisee asked for nothing. The Publican asks for the one thing necessary: God’s mercy.
The list of virtuous deeds of the Pharisee is impressive: he fasts, he gives alms, he pays his dues to God by coming to the Temple. He is a good man. And yet he is not justified. Is this to say that there is no need to perform those duties? Certainly not. In the epistle, St Paul insists upon the fact that the Holy Spirit realises a great variety of gifts in the Church. Each one is important. Each one is a gift of God. Each of us must play his/her role, otherwise it will remain undone. But whatever task we may be given, and whatever talent we may have to put to profit in the Holy Church, we must never scorn others, look down upon them as being worthless. Our actions are great because they are the will of God fulfilled in our lives, and because of that the humblest of actions is of infinite worth. On the other hand, the most extraordinary external deeds, when they are the fruit of one’s own will and pride, are profitless.
Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of St Mary of the Cross, and we read at Matins this extract from a letter she wrote in 1874: “I cannot tell you what a beautiful thing the will of God seems to me… I feel joy when things go well, for I see His will in this, and an equal joy when they seem to go wrong or against our natural desire, for there again I see His will, and am satisfied that He has accepted my prayers and those of many more for some other object at the time nearer to His adorable will. To me, the will of God is a dear book which I am never tired of reading, which has always some new charm for me. Nothing is too little to be noticed there, but yet my littleness and nothingness has often dared to oppose it, and I am painfully conscious that in many ways I still in my tepidity offend against it without perceiving what I am doing.” This prayer of St Mary resembles closely that of the Publican in today’s Gospel. She seeks the will of God, but she knows that she often falls short of its demands. She takes the measure of her lowliness compared to the infinite grandeur of God, and she remains, humbly resigned, like a small child who hurt its mother, and can only admit its fault.
But let’s return to this Publican, who is really the hero of today’s Gospel, and ask the Lord to enlighten us so that we too may be heard. We are told three things about his prayer:
First of all, his position: he stood afar off without lifting his eyes to Heaven. This reverential fear which moves the Publican to remain at a distance and not even lift his eyes to Heaven is indicative of an attitude of profound realisation of the grandeur of God and his own unworthiness to approach Him. It is as if, even when he goes to the Temple, he feels that he is not worthy to be there; he wants, as it were, to go and hide himself in a corner, not to be seen, even by God, for he knows his proper place and what he has deserved. He knows that he is a frail human being, not worthy to be compared with others, much less with all the angels and saints in Heaven and God Himself; he knows that he has been the source of much evil, of much spiritual contagion and poisonous influence on others and the world. He is aware of the grandeur of God, His infinite majesty and purity, his all-encompassing knowledge and wisdom, his eternal goodness and justice; and he knows that in comparison he is not even as a worm before God. He stands afar off and does not even lift his eyes to Heaven. How different in contrast that attitude of those who not only lift their eyes at God and judge His works but even dare to raise their fist in anger and revolt against their supreme benefactor. He stands afar off and does not even lift his eyes to Heaven.
Secondly, his action: he strikes his breast. His own breast, not that of others. How often people, when things go wrong, start to accuse others. Finding a scapegoat is a tactic as old as the world. It started with Adam who accused Eve and Eve who accused the serpent. No, the proper attitude is that of the Publican. He strikes his own breast. True, we are sometimes hurt by the sins of others, and indeed in most arguments and disagreements there are faults on both sides. Still, the only proper attitude when one becomes aware of failures is to strike one’s own breast. I do not know the sins of others, and even if I perceive their wrong actions, I do not know their degree of guilt. Perhaps they are not aware of the gravity of their conduct; perhaps they have a number of extenuating circumstances. One thing is sure: I know my guilt; I know how grievously I have offended God and neighbour; I know the havoc I have wreaked, the damage done by my many sins. With the publican, let us strike our own breast; let us acknowledge our sin.
Thirdly, his prayer: the Publican prays with few words, acknowledging his sinfulness and asking for mercy. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. What a beautiful prayer that is! It is pure, it is simple, it goes straight to the point. It says everything that needs to be said, leaving to God the care of providing the remedy in His own good time and way. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. This opening of oneself to the mercy of God is in proportion with the degree of one’s realisation of one’s need of that mercy. This is why the saints were not afraid to lower themselves into the abyss of their nothingness, to look sin and its consequences straight in the face, for such is the only way to experience the superabundant mercy of God. Abyssus abyssum invocat, says the Psalm (41). The abyss of our wretchedness calls out to the abyss of God’s merciful love, and the more we are conscious of our own abyss, the more we can be filled from His.
Such is the meaning of today’s oration: O God, thou dost manifest Thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity. Indeed, an almighty power is required to overcome and wipe out an infinite offense, which is what sin is. This is why it is a greater prodigy for God to forgive sin that for Him to create the world. Each time a repentant sinner receives absolution, the omnipotence of God is unleashed, and the world is, as it were, recreated, made anew, because there is no limit to God’s merciful love.
St John Vianney, whose feast is celebrated in some places on this day and who absolved more sinners than probably any other priest in history, described in these terms the marvel of the divine omnipotence poured out in the Sacrament of Confession: “It is not the sinner who comes back to God to ask for forgiveness; rather it is God who runs after the sinner so that he will come back to Him…. There are those who say: ‘I have done too much evil, the good God cannot forgive me’. This would be a great blasphemy. It would put a limit to the mercy of God, and there isn’t one: God’s mercy is infinite… To receive the sacrament of penance, three things are necessary; faith by which we discover God present in the priest, hope which makes us believe that God will give us the grace of forgiveness, and charity which leads us to love God and which puts in our heart the regret that we have offended Him… There are some who blow their nose when the priest gives absolution, and there are others who search to recall whether they have left out some of their sins… When the priest gives absolution, one should think only of one thing, that the blood of the Good God flows on our soul to wash it and to make it as beautiful as it was on the day of its baptism… The Good God at the moment of absolution throws our sins behind His shoulders; in other words, He forgets them; He destroys them; they will never reappear again…The sins that we hide always reappear. To hide one’s sins well, one must confess them well”.
My Dear Friends, this coming Saturday, Holy Church will be offering to our meditation the triumph of the Immaculate Virgin on the great feast of her Assumption, which is a holy day of obligation. Our Lady, the humble virgin of Nazareth, is truly the one who humbled herself before the Lord, and who for that reason has been exalted above all others. Let us ask her to obtain for us the grace of true humility of heart, which alone can give peace, alone can save, alone lead to the exaltation of heavenly glory to which we aspire. Everyone who exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.