BOASTING HUMBLY IN THE LORD

Catholic Homily/Reflection for the 30th Sunday, Year C
October 28, 2007

Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

I know the title sounds very much like an oxymoron. How can one be humble and boast? Or how can one boast and still be humble? This is a classical battle of opposites at its worst; a paradoxical tension of two seemingly irreconcilable realities, at its best. As a teacher, the Lord does not fail to surprise us. As a prophet, He continues to shock us. As king, He continues to lead His people to the “less traveled path” in the journey of faith. God’s Word, to the attentive and reflective reader (and hearer), continues to convict us. The Church, Christ’s mystical Body, in her ministry like unto that of Christ priest, prophet, and king, continues to amaze us and rouse us to ever new and “fresh readings” of the same Word, which is her duty to preach and proclaim, in season and out of season.

Today’s proclamation puts us in the midst of the proverbial Scriptural paradox, not unlike that of so many other paradoxes we read in the same Scripture: life through death, losing one’s life in order to find it; giving the other cheek to whomever strikes you on one; going the extra mile even if not asked to; giving up everything to gain a hundredfold; becoming lowly in order to be exalted …

God is a master at paradox … He is an expert at equivocation of sorts … Like our formal “God-talk” that we call “theology,” He engages us in an ongoing dialogue that makes use of analogical, symbolic manner of discourse.

In simpler terms, what does the liturgy today present us with? On the one hand, we have Sirach who declares his personal conviction that – you guessed it right – is couched in paradox. He says: “The Lord knows no favorites.” But in the same breath, he also avers: “He hears the cry of the oppressed … The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” On the other hand, we have St. Paul, who, thrusting modesty aside, writes to Timothy: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.”

The Gospel is no exception to this style. The Lord presents us with two people who went to the temple to pray. One boasted he was not like “the rest of men.” The other humbly asked the Lord for forgiveness, recognizing himself as a sinner. As any Biblical scholar would caution us, the Lord does not condemn the first because he was a Pharisee. In the same way, the Lord does not extol the other for being a tax collector. No, this is not a lesson on “class struggle.” Neither is it a blanket condemnation of a particular group of people, no matter how bad many of them most likely were.

My take on this is simple. The Pharisee was too categorical and cocky, as to miss out on one of the many ambiguities in life. He was too rigid. He painted the world in terms of black and white, saints and sinners, good and bad. Worst of all, he saw himself as the good, versus “the rest of humanity.” He lived in a world of certainty, and he divided the world neatly between those who can simply boast, and those who have no right to boast at all. He missed the glaring paradox that human life is basically all about.

There is a very disturbing trend in our times that reflect the attitude of that cocky Pharisee of the Gospel. There is that tendency in each one of us to divide the world neatly into two categories, to engage in an oversimplification of a basically complex reality, and see everything as belonging to just two extreme polarities, and to divide people into “we” and “they.” This is what extremist fundamentalism is all about, whether Christian, or any other religion. This is what spawns a dangerous wave of terrorism that is basically built on a simplistic – if, intolerant – view of “other” people who do not think as we think, who do not believe as we believe, and who, therefore, ought to be relegated to the world of “outsiders,” or, worse, condemned.

There is a very real threat of extreme polarization of all kinds in our society today … in politics, in economics, in religion, and other aspects of human, societal life. It sounds like it is the most cogent thing to do … force must be met with force; terror must be met with even greater terror … a tooth for a tooth; an eye for an eye … and killing, provided it is done in God’s name (or in the name of justice) is seen by such extremists as the proper, “holy” thing to do.

I would like to suggest that, among other things, today’s liturgy invites us to give a look at our ability or inability to live with ambiguity, with paradox, with the Scriptural datum that “all men have fallen short of the glory of God;” that “all men have sinned,” and that all of us stand in need of redemption.

Today’s liturgy is a reality check for all of us. If we are to be honest, we have identified mostly with the Pharisee and his supercilious, intolerant, and condescending attitude toward “the rest of humanity,” particularly the tax collector.

One of the hallmark characteristic traits of a fully self-actualizing (mature) person, according to humanistic psychologists, is the ability to live with ambiguity, the capacity to navigate oneself in the midst of tension and paradox that life is all about. The same may be said of the mature and virtuous Christian. He boasts of nothing that comes from his personal work. He can only lay claim to his sins, and thereby, lay claim also, to God’s mercy and forgiveness.

This glaring paradox comes out clearly in our words of response after the first reading: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” It only echoes what we heard from Sirach: “Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”

It is only the oppressed, the sinner who acknowledges his sins, the person who gives up the illusion of certainty in favor of living in a state of paradox, who, in the end, is open to surprises. It is people like the tax collector, who humbly confesses his sins, who can openly boast and proclaim, like the psalmist does: “I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall be ever in my mouth.”

In contrast, the rigid, the cocky, and the self-complacent go out of what was supposed to have been a prayer experience without ever having met God. The Pharisee, in his false self-complacent certainty left the temple with only that same certainty. The tax collector, on the other hand, left the temple with the only certainty that counts – the certainty of ever having met the God he prayed to, and the certainty of having been forgiven by the same God.

The Pharisee went to the temple boasting. The tax collector, like Paul writing to Timothy, went away from the temple of meeting with God boasting in the Lord, for his humble prayer had been heard. He went home “justified … for he who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Alternative Reflection

BOASTING IN THE LORD VERSUS SIMPLY BOASTING

Last week, we reflected on persistent prayer. Prayer spelled the victory of God in Moses’ developing problem with the Amalekite marauders. Prayer, the persistent type, spelled too, fulfillment of the widow’s request from the unjust judge. This Sunday, we are back once more, at least initially, to the topic of constant prayer.

Sirach gives the opening salvo for us. He is our authority of the day. In prophetic fashion that accrues from the wisdom tradition, he declares unequivocally a double truth born out of his own and his people’s experience: the truth of God’s justice, on the one hand, and that of His mercy, on the other. “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” But wait … Sirach gives the thought a second look, and this time, he speaks from his people’s journey of faith. He declares once more, that God was not “unduly partial toward the weak, yet he HEARS the cry of the oppressed.” God hears. God listens. No, He does more … God obeys (eisakouo) the pleadings of the poor and the lowly.

There is something about someone hearing that reminds us of somebody else speaking and pleading, and praying. God could not have “obeyed” had someone not interceded; had someone not prayed. Again, Scripture reminds us of the power of prayer. This, the psalmist tells us in his most convincing apologia: “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me? My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Scripture does not explain and expound. Scripture just simply reports the fact in a straightforward fashion. It is a two-pronged fact. One is the established fact of God’s justice. The other is the unfolding fact in His people’s history of His preferential option for the poor and the powerless. Diane Bergant, apropos this, puts it so well: “[Sirach] insists that God is concerned with justice, not favoritism; when God takes the side of the poor, it is for the sake of justice, not poverty.” And God does so, most especially because the orphan, the widow, and the lowly take resort to prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.”

Both the second and third readings offer us examples of prayerful people for whom God has become real and personal. This, the readings give us by way of contrast. St. Paul, knowing that his end was drawing nigh, gives in to grateful remembering. He sees himself as an offering being poured out on the altar of sacrifice. He sees himself taking leave of what he has gotten used to doing all his life, and, like a faithful soldier, just fading away slowly from the scene. His memories are well stocked, not with achievements, but with what God, in His power and mercy, has wrought in him. Grateful remembering gives way to humble boasting as only the really humble can do. In the utter simplicity of his childlike faith, he makes a “boast” to Timothy and his flock: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” But this was not the inane boasting of a proud man who only wanted merit for himself. This was the humble boasting of a man who knew all along that, in his weakness, God had been his strength. “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the gentiles might hear it … To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

In the Gospel, the Lord shocks us his hearers once again. In another story of “reversals,” we are presented with the image of a “good tax collector.” Since when did tax collectors who padded their collections many times over, been associated with “good”? But the Lord did not favor the publican as against the other because that other happened to be a Pharisee. The Lord did not condemn a Pharisee for being a Pharisee; nor did the Lord favor the publican for being one, as we shall see.

Seen in the backdrop of today’s readings and the theme of the liturgical celebration, the gospel presents us with something which, someone like Paul, like Sirach, could boast about. Two men entered the temple. One boasted of his “righteousness.” The other confessed his sinfulness. The former, certain and complacent in his pretended goodness, did nothing but enumerate his good acts. He worked his way through his list of good deeds, and felt smug about them. He came, not to pray, but to tell. He came, not to acknowledge, but to judge. “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”

But it is the latter, the publican, who came mortified before the Lord. He came with sorrow in his heart, not praise for his good deeds. He came with humble acceptance of his sins, not defiant proclamation of his achievements. He came, not with a lame boast, but with a claim to his own sinfulness. He came, not with a press (or “praise”) release, but with a prayer for mercy: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Here we are with a story with immense shock value! What a story of reversals! What a story about Christian essentials! It is a story, not about class struggle between Pharisees and Publicans, nor is it a story about God’s favoritism. But it does have something to tell us smug and complacent people who feel happy and contented that “we are not like the rest of humanity.” It does have a message to people like us, who can be satisfied that we are not “terrorists,” that we are not “murderers” and “thieves;” that we are not given in to doing such dastardly acts as we read in the papers and see on TV on a daily basis. It does have something to say to that attitude of religious arrogance that we can have at times. It sure has something to say about our prayer, which, like that of the Pharisee, is often more like a monologue than anything else. It sure has something to say to us who are often given in to empty boasting, and to self-centered focusing, more on the evil that we have not done, and less on the good that we ought to have done.

The Pharisee, who came, not to pray, but to boast, got home feeling good about himself, but not justified before God, who “reads the heart” of people. What he said was not answered, for the simple reason that he did not make a prayer. He made a praise release. The Publican, who came with the humble request for mercy, got what he asked for – and more.

Today is a day for all of us to make a solid choice: simply boast and go home empty-handed, or boast humbly in the Lord, and go home filled. “For he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Indeed, to quote an American author, “nothing is more simple than greatness; to be simple is to be great.”

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