In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
How short, and how well known today’s parable, and yet, how intense its message, how challenging…
It is intense in its very words: two men come into the church of God, into a sacred realm—which belongs to Him unreservedly in a world that is otherwise lost to Him. They enter His Divine Realm. And one of the men walks boldly into it and takes a stand before God. The other one comes, and doesn’t even dare cross the threshold—he is a sinner, and the Realm is holy, like the space around the Burning Bush in the desert that Moses could not enter without unshod feet, in adoration and the fear of God.
And how different are the words they speak! Apparently the Pharisee praises God, he gives Him glory—but for what? Because He has made a man like him, a man so holy, so worthy of Him, of God; a man who not only keeps all the commandments of the Law, but goes beyond what God Himself has commanded, and can expect of man. Indeed, he stands before God praising Him that he, the Pharisee, is so wonderful that he is God’s own glory, the shining, the revelation of God’s holiness…
The Publican does not dare enter into the holy Realm of God.
And the parable is clear: the man who came and stood brokenhearted, ashamed of himself, knowing that he is unworthy of entering this sacred space goes back home forgiven, loved, indeed: accompanied by God Himself Who came into the world to save sinners and Who stands by everyone who needs Him, who recognizes his need—or not—for salvation.
The Pharisee goes home, but he goes home less forgiven; his relationship with God is not the same—he is at the center, God is peripheral to him, He is at the heart of things, and God is subservient to him. It does not mean that what he did was worthless; it simply means that as far as he is concerned, it has born no fruit of holiness in him. The deeds were good, but they were spoiled, poisoned by pride, by self-assertion. The beauty of what he did was totally marred because it was addressed neither to God nor to his neighbor—it was turned in on his own self. And we are told that this pride has despoiled this man, has taken away from him the fruits of his good works, the fruit of his outward faithfulness to the law of God; that only humility could have given him and his action full meaning; that only humility could have made his actions into life, into the waters of life gushing into eternity.
But then, the question is before us: how can we learn anything about humility if that is theabsolute condition to be not like the barren fig tree, but fruitful, to be a rich harvest which people may be fed.
I do not know that we can move from pride and vanity into humility in a moment unless something so tragic happens to us that we see ourselves and discover that we are completely bereft of everything that supported our sinful, destructive, barren condition. But there is one thing we can do: however much we think that we are possessed of all sorts of gifts of heart, mind, body, and soul, however fruitful our action may be, we can remember the words of Saint Paul: O, man! What have you got which was notgivenyou?! And indeed, he echoes at this point what Christ said in the first Beatitude, the Beatitude that opens the door to all other Beatitudes; the Beatitude that is the beginning of understanding: Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who know, not only with their intellect—but at least with their intellect!—that they are nothing, and they possess nothing which is not a gift of God.
We were called into being out of naught, without our participation; our very existence is a gift! We were given life, which we could not create or call out of ourselves. We have been given the knowledge of the existence of God, and indeed, a deeper, more intimate knowledge of God. All this is gift! And then, all that we are is a gift of God: our body, our heart, our mind, our soul. What power do we have over them when God no should longer sustain them? The greatest intelligence can suddenly be swallowed into darkness by a stroke; there are moments when we are confronted with a need that requires all our sympathy, all our love—and we discover that our hearts are made of stone and of ice… We want to do good, and we cannot; Saint Paul knew this already when he said: The good which I love, I don’t do, and the wrong which I hate I do continuously… And our body depends on so many things!
And what of our relationships, of the friendships that are given us, the love that sustains us, the comradeship—everything that we are and possess is a gift. What is the next move: isn’t it gratitude? Can’t we turn to God not as a pharisee, priding ourselves in what we are and forgetting that all of it is his, but turning to God and saying, “O, God! All this is a gift from You! All that beauty, intelligence, sensitive heart, all the circumstances of life are a gift! Indeed, all those circumstances, even those that frighten us, are a gift because God says to us: I trust you enough to send you into the darkness to bring light! I send you into corruption to be the salt that stops corruption! I send you where there is no hope to bring hope, where there is no joy to bring joy, no love to bring love… and one could go on, on, on, seeing that when we are sent into the darkness it is to be God’s presence and God’s life. And that means that He trusts us—He trusts us, He believes in us, He hopes everything for us: isn’t that enough to be grateful for?
But gratitude is not just a cold word of thanks. Gratitude means that we wish to make Him see that it was not all given in vain, that He did not become man, live, and die in vain. Gratitude means a life that could give joy to God. This is the challenge of this particular parable…
Yes, the ideal would be for us to be humble. But what is humility? Who of us knows the answer, and if someone does know it, who can communicate it to everyone who doesn’t know? But we all know gratitude; we know the small ways and aspects of it! Let us reflect on it, and let us in an act of gratitude recognize that we have no right to be in God’s own realm, and yet He lets us in! We have no right to commune with Him either in prayer, or in the sacrament and yet He calls us to commune with Him! We have no right to be His children, to be brothers and sisters of Christ, to be the dwelling place of the Spirit, and yet He grants it all in an act of love!
Let each of us reflect and ask himself: in what way can we be so grateful that God might rejoice that He has not given these gifts in vain, that He has not lived and died in vain, that we have received the message. And if we grow in a true depth of gratitude, at the depth of gratitude we will fall down, adore the Lord, and learn what humility is—not in abasement but adoration, in the awareness that He is all we possess, all that we are, and that we are open to Him as the rich earth is open to the plough, to the sowing, to the seed, to the sunshine, to the rain—to everything in order to bring forth fruit. Amen!