Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): The tax collector, completely aware of the enormity of his sins, and therefore of his unworthiness, beats his breast and prays, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Where does he get the confidence to do this? His experience of limitation and failure has led him not to despair but to depend. He remains certain that there is something beyond “every evil threat” and that the Lord will rescue him. Maybe it was his sin that jogged his memory of the promise of Sirach: “The Lord hears the cry of the oppressed. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” This is why the formerly unspeakably sinful Paul can say without boasting: “From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.” For “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
(This weekend’s Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of Sirach.
Do not offer the LORD a bribe,
for he will not accept it;
and do not trust to an unrighteous sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him is no partiality.
He will not show partiality in the case of a poor man;
and he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the fatherless,
nor the widow when she pours out her story.
He whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted,
and his prayer will reach to the clouds.
The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and he will not be consoled until it reaches the Lord;
he will not desist until the Most High visits him,
and does justice for the righteous, and executes judgment.
And the Lord will not delay,
neither will he be patient with them,
till he crushes the loins of the unmerciful
and repays vengeance on the nations;
till he takes away the multitude of the insolent,
and breaks the scepters of the unrighteous.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: This passage essentially speaks for itself. More to the point, it illustrates precisely the point Jesus makes in this weekend’s Gospel recollection of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It’s very likely, in fact, that our Lord was thinking of this passage from Sirach – one of the “deuterocanonical” Old Testament books accepted by Catholics but rejected by Protestants – as He told the parable.
As noted again in last weekend’s meditations, Greek-speaking Jews would have been most familiar with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which includes Sirach and the other six so-called apocryphal books. All Old Testament quotes within the texts of the four canonical Gospels use the Septuagint translation, indicating that the apostles likewise were familiar with all of the 46 books it contained. And one also can draw a direct line from this passage to Peter’s post-Pentecost exclamation at the testimony of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to the infant Church: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).
So after you read this weekend’s Gospel reading and ponder on its contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector, swing back to this first reading. And may you and all of us who believe in Christ rededicate ourselves to approaching God in this very spirit, for the sake of all the world.
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
A reading from the second letter of St. Paul to Timothy.
Beloved: For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: St. Paul here writes his epitaph. He knows that the Romans soon will come for him for the last time and escort him to the hill where his head will be separated from his body (the location now occupied by one of Rome’s principal churches, St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls). He had survived the house arrest that first brought him to Rome (during which he wrote several of his letters). God had permitted him to make one last missionary journey to Spain and back to Macedonia. Then Rome burned; Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and outlawed their faith; and both Peter and Paul were brought back to Rome to receive their martyrs’ crowns.
Paul had once more used his Roman citizenship to plead his cause – and that of Christ – to the utmost in the Roman courts. Like his Lord, he had been deserted during the first trial of his second imprisonment; but God saw fit to preserve Paul a little longer and allow him to write this last moving letter to his beloved Timothy. No doubt the “apostle to the Gentiles,” dictating these words, has looked back once more on his horrid period as a zealous, ignorant persecutor. To the Damascus road and his Lord asking him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” To his baptism by Ananias. To his missionary journeys, the churches he planted, the opposition, abuse and torture he endured. To the flourishing faith among Gentiles along the Mediterranean shore from Antioch to Corinth to Rome.
It is most appropriate to read these words on the eve of the Solemnity of All Saints: “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” If he who sincerely felt himself to be the least of all Christ’s apostles can look back in this way, as well as forward to the reward awaiting him, so must we persevere as St. Paul, knowing we too will receive the “crown of righteousness” in our time.
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: A riddle: How many people were praying in the Temple in Jesus’ parable? In truth, only one. For one cannot pray to oneself – and this is exactly how Jesus characterizes the Pharisee’s words that so eloquently testify to the Pharisee’s own sense of self-importance. Never forget that it was this overzealous and haughty dedication to fulfilling “the works of the Law” that caused Paul – who, as a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” knew the attitude all too well – to repeatedly contrast the worthlessness of empty piety in comparison with the humble faith that justifies us before God’s throne of grace.
One need not be a Pharisee, however, to get so caught up in ritual that one ends up farther away from God’s grace than when he or she began the ritual. How very quick we are to render judgment upon those who stumble over the words of the Mass or don’t sing well or don’t kneel at the right time or take perverse pride in pronouncing doom upon those with mortal sins upon their record (as though we are somehow incapable of falling in like manner)! Paul, whom Luke served faithfully all the way to the apostle’s beheading, cries out to us: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things … For God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:1, 11).
So let us find ourselves in the tax collector who cries out, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and then be comforted by Paul’s words: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Romans 3:28). Now, read the words of Sirach again (and note that Paul, too, clearly knew this “apocryphal” work as Scripture). And be assured that if we truly humble ourselves in repentance and faith, we will be exalted. We will receive the crown of righteousness. Let us finish the race.
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be