Sunday October 28, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18) Reading II (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18)
Gospel (St. Luke 18:9-14)
In the Gospel reading today, Our Lord tells us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. [We see] the Pharisee standing before the Lord and, in essence, telling God how lucky the Lord is that He created this particular Pharisee because he is not like other men: He fasts twice a week and he pays tithes and isn't he just the most wonderful thing that has ever walked the earth? And then we look at the tax collector. Tax collectors, of course, in that particular day (and I supposed it has not changed a whole lot) were considered to be the lowliest; they were considered to be thieves and they were not appreciated in society, at all. This man comes before the Lord, bows his head and says, "Be merciful to me, a sinner." The Lord tells us that man went home justified; the Pharisee, on the other hand, did not.
That point of the self-righteousness is one that we must be careful of. It is something we can fall into very easily. In fact, what makes it even easier to fall into self-righteousness is when we have enough of what this world has to offer. I think, if we look around America, that we will find lots of self-righteousness - lots of people who think that they have everything under control. How many times I have heard from people who have been away from the Church for many years, they come back and they want to make a confession of their sins and they begin by saying, "Well, I'm really a good person. I really haven't done anything that is very bad." Then they go on to their confession. At the end of it, I have to wonder what is really bad, if that wasn't?
We have a totally skewed idea in our minds of what really being sinful is. We have the idea that we can do just about anything because it is available. All you have to do is look these days at young couples getting married. They know the Church's teaching that contraception is wrong, but it is just so easy and available that [they say], "Who cares what the Church teaches? I'm not doing anything too badly anyway." We look at young people who know the Church's teaching regarding purity. But the temptations are there and it is pretty easy to fall into them and [they say], "Well, I'm a pretty good person, anyway, so it doesn't really matter if I do lots of immoral things in this way. After all, we both kind of said 'yes' and so it's not a problem, is it?"
We can look at all sorts of areas. We can look at people in business. It has just become the norm now that it is okay to lie and cheat and steal just to be able to get ahead: "Tell your customers anything, as long as it is what they want to hear, and then you get yourself off the hook. It's no big deal." And then we justify ourselves. What is even more sad are the stories I hear from people who do something that is really underhanded and they laugh and brag about it. They think it is funny that they have hurt somebody or that they embarrassed somebody or humiliated them publicly. And they walk away justifying themselves because it was something that was really funny - at somebody else's expense.
These are some things that perhaps are somewhat extreme, but it makes the point and perhaps some of us have fallen into some of these things. How we justify ourselves, and we try to make ourselves righteous. We need to be so very careful in these ways because then we look at others and we start judging them. The amazing thing is that it is the very people who lie and cheat and steal that are the most irate if somebody lies to them or cheats them or steals from them. But they think it is okay for themselves to do these things. And if we justify ourselves by saying, "Other people do it to me, so I can do it to someone else," that is entirely wrong.
What we need to do is to make ourselves lowly. The saints tell us that if somebody is going to walk on you, let them. The Lord tells us the same thing: "If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer them the other. If someone takes your cloak, offer them your coat as well. If they press you into service for one mile, go two with them." The Christian attitude is one of generosity; it is one of giving of ourselves.
Not generosity in the sense that it does not matter to us if somebody does something that is unjust, but rather, generosity in the sense that we are not going to try to lower ourselves to the standards of the world. There needs to be a clear distinction between those people in the world who are Christian and those who are not. When one cannot tell who is who - that is not the problem of the world - that is our problem. If we are no different from the rest of the people, other than the fact that we get up on Sunday morning and come to Mass, we are in serious trouble. If we think that just doing this little bit is going to justify us before the Lord, I think we had better think again because each one of us needs to make sure that we are humbling ourselves before God.
Each one of us needs to make sure that we are living the way Christ did, not the way the media tells us we should live: looking out for "Number One", making sure that we are taken care of, making sure that everything is focused on the self and if there is a little bit left over at the end then we can appease our consciences and give a little bit to the poor, but Heaven forbid that we would put ourselves out for the sake of someone else. That is the self-righteous attitude, once again. It is so prevalent in our society that most people would not even notice it. If you were to point out to somebody that they were being self-righteous, they would look at you incredulously, wondering what it was that you were talking about because they did not notice that they were doing anything that was wrong or anything that was different from what most people do. We need to be careful that we are not that way ourselves. Because it is so prevalent and because it is so easy to fall into that, when one becomes self-righteous it is hardly noticeable.
Now one could wonder, then, how will we notice? The way we will be able to see it within ourselves is if we pray. We hear in the readings, today, all about prayer: the publican praying, in the first reading the prayer of the poor pierces the heavens and does not rest until it is heard. We hear Saint Paul talking about how God stood by him, even when everyone else had deserted him. The prayer of the lowly is heard. If we are praying, what we are doing is putting ourselves in relationship with the Lord. And I do not mean simple rote prayers, but I mean getting down inside the heart and talking to the Lord, being in relationship with Christ.
The Lord will show us where we are being self-righteous. He will help us to recognize where we are not being like Him because when we are praying in that way the Lord is our example. The Lord is the One we are looking to and judging ourselves according to; not to the ways of the world, but to Jesus Himself. When we are looking at Christ and speaking to Him, if there is something in our life that is not in accordance with His, He will point that out to us. He will help us to see where we have gone astray or where we are not living our lives in the right way. If we judge ourselves according to the worldly standards, we are going to be encouraged in doing what is wrong; we are going to be encouraged in being selfish; we are going to be encouraged in being more worldly; and it is the wrong standard. Jesus Christ is our standard, as Christian people.
So we can ask ourselves about some of the other areas where we might fall into self-righteousness. What about getting angry and trying to convince ourselves that it is okay? What about failing to forgive other people and telling ourselves it is okay? "After all, if that person did to you what they did to me, you wouldn't forgive them either," we say. Or, "They are not sorry for what they did so why should I forgive them? It's okay for me to be angry - look at what that person did." We hang on to these things self-righteously. There are so many other areas where one can look to see [self-righteousness]. And it is our pride. That is what self-righteousness is: it is the pride.
The Lord tells us that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. So what we need to do is go before the Lord and humble ourselves, knowing that the prayer of the lowly will be heard. Now, it is not always answered the way we want it to be. Even though Scripture tells us that God will not delay in His answer, we need to be careful. Saint Paul tells us that, in the first hearing of his case, everybody deserted him. They deserted Our Lord, as well. And so we need to understand that the way God is going to answer our prayers is not necessarily in the time or the way that we think He should.
In other words, if we are struggling with self-righteousness, God has to provide some humility for us. And He will. What we need to do is go to prayer and ask for humility. Remember that the way God will answer that is by providing humiliation in order to help you to grow in humility. And remember always the statement of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: "It takes a lot of humiliation to obtain a little humility." Humility is not something that comes easy to us. We like it when we see it in someone else, but we do not like what it is going to require to get it. Most of us are content in our self-righteousness and in our pride because we are afraid of what it is going to take to become humble. God will allow us to be deserted. He will allow us to be tread upon. He will allow difficult things to happen to us. And He asks, simply, that we would continue to do what is right, to continue to be humble and poor and lowly.
Saint Paul said, in the second reading, that his life had been poured out like a libation. When we can say that same thing then we, too, will be humble. When things become difficult and we continue to practice virtue, when we continue to give of ourselves even when we are convinced that there is nothing left to give, that is when we are becoming lowly; that is when we humble ourselves and God will exalt us.
But when we look out for ourselves that is when we get puffed up; that is when we are convincing God of our own goodness and our own righteousness. Remember what the Lord says about those who do things in order to be seen: "They are already repaid." If what you are doing is looking out for the self there will be no reward because you have already rewarded yourself for what it is that you have done. If we are looking out, rather, for the good of others and trying to practice charity, trying to give of ourselves, then God will reward us because we are not looking for anything from anyone else. Rather, we are simply seeking to give.
These are not easy things - especially in this world, where humility is seen as weakness, where goodness is seen as an opportunity to exploit. When we try to practice these virtues, people walk upon us. But then we need to remember the words of Saint Teresa of Avila when she spoke to her nuns and said: "To be a Carmelite is not to give up your rights, it is simply not to demand them." Americans do not understand that sentiment very well. Our first reaction is, oftentimes, to sue, to get even, to look for justice in the way we think it ought to be. The Christian attitude is to look to God and to ask the question "What is God trying to do in my life through this action that is happening?" "Is He trying to make me grow in virtue? Is He trying to provide humility? How does He want me to deal with this situation?" That is the Christian response.
We need to consider these things very carefully and look at our reaction. Are we coming before the Lord with humility? True humility, not the false humility. Not coming before the Lord and really thinking that we are wonderful, but knowing that because the Gospel said we need to say, "Have mercy on me, a sinner," we will go through the motions and give it lip-service. I mean, are we really coming before the Lord with true humility? Or are we coming before the Lord arrogantly, telling the Lord how to do His job, telling the Lord how blessed He is because of us, telling the Lord that we are just the most wonderful?
Listen to the rhetoric over the last month of how wonderful America is - how great we are and all the wonderful things we have done to the world. And we cannot understand why anybody would not like us. I think all we need to do is take one step back and look at what we have done. We have a very small percentage of the world's population, but use over 90% of the world's resources. We have been killing babies left and right and have provided for other countries to do the same. Out of supposed humanitarian aid, we have gone in and sterilized women in other societies so that they cannot have babies. We did not tell them we were doing that, we just gave them drugs under the guise of immunizing them so they would not get sick. We have exploited Third World countries. Henry Kissinger, back a few years ago, came out in public and said, "It is essential for us to keep [the population of] Third World countries down in order for America to maintain its standard of living." Do we have a problem with self-righteousness?
Because we have done a few good things for other people, we walk around puffed up, while we go around continuing to murder and to lie and to cheat. This has not been a righteous society over the last 40 years. We cannot base ourselves on what has happened in the past, what happened in the beginning of our country. We need to look at what is happening presently. We need to get down on our knees and we need to beg for mercy - not puff out our chests and tell everyone how wonderful we are and try to get even. We need to look seriously at situations, and we need to look honestly at them. We need to humble ourselves before the Lord because the prayer of the proud is not going to be heard. But the prayer of the poor will pierce the heavens, and the prayer of the lowly will be heard.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.