My friends, the readings for our edification today should both comfort and challenge us. Sirach, being the prophet that he was, could be expected to speak of justice and of the God of justice–that is what prophets do—speak the words that need to be spoken, whether the words are accepted or not, on behalf of the God who loves us all so much, and wants good for each of us. The comfort that the righteous should feel at the words from Sirach, in our 1st reading today, will come out of their honest attempts to live out in their lives, the law of love.
The gospel reading calls us to make a distinction between being righteous and being self-righteous. Those who are truly righteous are humble people, being fully aware of their inadequacies as well as those things that they have accomplished in life. Humility’s place comes with the righteous person’s realization that their God who loves them, has additionally gifted them with so many good things, that can then be shared with others. There is the realization that without God’s strength, manifested in the good of others; there would be so much that they couldn’t do. Humility also allows the righteous to be fully aware of those places in their lives that need redemption.
It has been said that “kids say the darndest things,” and this week, spending time with our grandson, I was reminded of this truth. One day, Elliot and I were playing with some flash cards and we came upon one that was torn in half. I asked him what had happened and his mom gave the explanation saying that he was a lot younger when that happened. Elliot had an explanation too that I thought was perfect to describe the process of sorrow and reconciliation in our lives. Elliot looked at me in response to my question about what had happened and with appropriate sorrow on his little face said, “I teared it and I’m so sorry—what can I do about it?”
The self-righteous are those individuals who are fully aware of their goodness and aren’t shy about letting others and even God know all that they have accomplished, like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. These people generally are not the humble among us, because they aren’t aware that they have indeed been gifted, but by God, with so much, or for whatever reason, have maybe never experienced what it is like to have everything taken from them, such as those who have encountered the forces of nature recently, or to have struggled with the hardships that can come in life, just by the nature of our human existence; loss of job, illness and more.
I have shared before that I’m struggling to get some sciatica pain under control and the experience of having something that I can’t easily and readily fix has left me feeling very humble and realizing that I depend on so many for so much. It seems that my mornings are the worst with this affliction and while visiting our family in Kansas City, our daughter Eryn was so good to me, making sure all my needs were met.
As much as I don’t wish pain or suffering on anyone, it does call attention to the fragility of life and of how we are each called to be of service to and for others. The psalmist’s prayer today is one of comfort in the times of struggle knowing that our God is there and understands our cries for help.
One of the most disturbing aspects of politics in the recent past and through this presidential campaign season is the level that we seem to have stooped to in fighting for what we apparently believe in. When we seem to become in our own actions and language what we say we are against—then we must ask, what do we really value?
When a woman, the first woman ever to run for president and will probably be elected can’t catch a break from the news casters in all that she has done over 30 years of public life, working tirelessly for women, children and the down-trodden in general, one has to ask if there isn’t some real pharisaical action afoot; if the objection by some of having a woman be our president just as it was for having a black man hold this office is so strong, that it blinds some eyes and hearts to the inherent good in us all, regardless of gender, then we have a problem!
We have a country, Church, and world that are still very patriarchal and it behooves us all to understand that fact in order that we as a world, in all its aspects can truly treat people with justice, mercy and love.
I recently heard a commentary on the insidious nature of gender disparity and the speaker was saying that we all have been raised to discount women by nature of their gender and even those who would deny that they have a gender bias act as if they do. Shortly after hearing this commentary, I heard a news analysis concerning Hilary Clinton and it was so obvious as I listened the bias that was being projected. The comments concerned her choice of clothes, the sound of her voice (not what she was saying) as well as an inability to judge her on the same criteria that they would a man.
So my friends, let me be clear; I am not advocating for how you vote as much as I am for checking out how we look at all people, no matter the issue–can we hear and see others for what they put forth in life—judge them by their actions and not on how they happen to have been born!
It is apparent that Jesus isn’t holding the example of the Pharisee up for our edification, but that of the tax collector, the person who can only say, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This gospel story, like so many that Jesus gives us, calls us to a standard above this world. Jesus is very good at flipping the picture to call us to the truth that we must be about—his very telling words that conclude the gospel are evident of this; “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Each of us is called within our own life situations to do what we can to make our world more just. In the selection from Sirach, there is a line,verse 15 that has been omitted, but I think it is good for us to look at because this prophet is calling his society and especially its men to task for its harsh treatment of widows. He says, “Do not the tears that stream down her cheeks cry out against the one that causes them to fall?” In light of my thoughts on gender disparity, this might be a good reflection. The righteous people will be challenged by these words—the self-righteous, probably not.
It has been said that Paul in his letter to Timothy demonstrates both tendencies, that of the Pharisee who is aware of all that he has accomplished and also of the tax collector who is fully aware of where the ability to do good really comes from. “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race…To Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever!”
For each of us, we are challenged by his words to keep on with our struggles in life doing all that we can to bring justice. If our lives at their completion can be said to have been about continually striving toward this end, then we too can say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race—I have kept faith.
As we reflect on Paul’s life, we must remember that these words were spoken because he knew what it was to struggle for the right—it has been said that someone who was totally into himself or felt justified simply in believing, could never have uttered these words.
Prayer was Paul’s strength as it must be ours in all of our work for justice. We need the company of friends too to sustain us. I think of those who have been soul mates throughout my life and hopefully, I have been to them as well. Paul had gathered many friends around him and we must do the same. We need others and others need us.
And finally friends, today’s readings call us to truth about ourselves–there is no place for arrogance in Jesus’ kin-dom. We must always be vigilant against this tendency to think ourselves better than others or more worthy of the good that life holds for the just—the righteous. The point on the continuum between righteousness and self-righteousness is very thin. Let us pray for each other today that we can always keep our eyes on Jesus and model our lives on his.