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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Homily for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp

Sirach 35:15-17, 20-22, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14
On the Gospel, The Secret of Good Worship

The story is told that one day Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, visited a prison and talked with each of the inmates. There were endless tales of innocence, of misunderstood motives, and of exploitation. Finally the king stopped at the cell of a convict who remained silent. “Well,” remarked Frederick, “I suppose you are an innocent victim too?” “No, sir, I'm not,” replied the man. “I'm guilty and deserve my punishment.” Turning to the warden the king said, “Here, release this rascal before he corrupts all these fine, innocent people in here!” The biblical saying proves true, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

Today's gospel is one to which every believer needs to pay close attention. It is the story of two believers, a Pharisee and a tax collector. It is important to underline the facts that both men were believers in the same God, both belonged to the same religion and both worshipped in the same temple. Both men were active believers who participated in temple worship and said their daily prayers. But what do we see? At the end of the worship one of them went home at peace with God but the other did not. We all, believers in God, need to pay attention to this story not only to learn the secret of offering a worship acceptable to God but also of leading a life of faith that leads to justification and not disappointment at the end of the day.

It will help us to appreciate the point of this parable if we try to understand a little bit more of who the Pharisees were. It often comes to us as a surprise to hear that the Pharisees were, in fact, very disciplined and devout men of religion. Pharisees were serious-minded believers who had committed themselves to a life of regular prayer and observance of God's Law. In fact, they went beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, even though the law only required people to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement. They gave tithes of all their income and not just of the required parts. When the Pharisee in the parable said, “I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11-12) he wasn't kidding. Few Christians today can measure up to the visible moral standards of the Pharisees.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. Because tax collectors worked for the pagan Romans, mixed up with them and constantly handled their unclean money they were said to be in a state of ritual uncleanliness. As far as the religion of the day was concerned, tax collectors were public sinners on the highway to hell. But the tax collectors knew that the voice of people is not always the voice of God. They still hoped for salvation not on the merit of any religious or moral achievements of theirs but on the gracious mercy of God.

Believing in God does not really save anybody. James tells us that the devil himself believes in God and trembles with fear (James 2:19). Rather, what really matters is what people believe about God and how their faith in God affects their view of themselves and of others. The Pharisees believed in a discriminating God who loves good people and hates bad people. People behave like the God they believe in. So the Pharisees quickly learn to love only good people like themselves and look down with contempt on bad people and sinners like the tax collectors. Jesus told this parable against the Pharisees because they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (verse 9). The tax collector, on the other hand, trusted not in himself or in anything he had done but only in God’s mercy. Standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). This is the man who went home at peace with God and not the self-righteous Pharisee.

Like the Pharisee and the tax collector we too have come to God's house to offer worship and prayers. Like them we too hope to go home at the end of this service reconciled and at peace with God. Then let us learn from the tax collector the secret of worshipping in a manner that is acceptable to God. Firstly, we should not listen to other people or even to our own consciences when they tell us that God is so angry with us that He cannot possible forgive us. Secondly, we must acknowledge our sinfulness and entrust ourselves to the generous mercy of God which is bigger than any sins we might have committed. Finally, we promise God to never to look down on our fellow sinners but to help them in their search for God, just as the tax collector is helping us today in our search for God. Remember, God always opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

On the Epistle, What Is Christian Victory?

"I am a winner in the Lord." "We shall overcome, in Jesus' name." "We are more than conquerors." Slogans like these have become very popular in prosperity gospel churches. You can tell by the name some of these churches have chosen for themselves, such as Overcomers, Winners and Victory churches. This "victory now" attitude is fast making its way into mainline churches like the Catholic and Anglican churches. In light of today's second reading from 2 Timothy, where St. Paul celebrates his victory, it would be nice for us to stop and ask ourselves, "What is of Christian victory?" When Paul declares that the Lord will save him from every evil (2 Timothy 4:8), does that mean that, as a man of God, no pains, hardships or sufferings would ever be his portion in life, as prosperity gospel preachers claim? These questions will help us clear some misunderstandings on what the Bible teaches on Christian victory.

Persecution was a defining experience of the first Christians at the time when most of our new Testament books were written. Paul, the stated writer of 2 Timothy, was a victim of such a persecution. He was facing charges for treason against the state on account of his belief in Christ. To add to his woes, even his friends, the Christians for whom he had spent his life, abandoned him and did not come to his defence. As he says, himself, "At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me" (2 Tim 4:16). The trial did not go well for Paul. It was clear that he was losing the case. Maybe he was already convicted and only awaiting sentencing. Maybe he was already sentenced to death and was on death row awaiting execution. What is clear is that Paul knew for sure that he was not going to get out of prison alive. So he decides to write to Timothy, his spiritual son, urging him not to be discouraged at the prospect of his imminent death but to continue with courage his work of preaching Christ.
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6-8)

Paul is not deluding himself. He knew that time was up, as far as his life in this world is concerned. Yet that does not discourage him. He does not complain that the Lord has abandoned him into the hands of his enemies. He does not lament that the Lord has failed him by letting his accusers win the case. Rather he rejoices that the time has come for him to receive the crown of righteousness from the Lord whom he served so faithfully. This is what death means for Paul. For Paul, arrest, imprisonment, punishment, torture, and even death itself come from the Lord as much as life, health and freedom. Paul sees the hand of the Lord at work in these circumstances. "All things work together for good for those who love God" (Romans 8:28). All things, including death.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Tim 4:16-18)

Even though Paul lost the case, he still said that he was saved from the lion's mouth. For Paul death was not the lion's mouth, since he was not saved from death. For him the lion's mouth was apostasy, or denying the faith so as to escape death. Denying the faith, not death, is the worst thing that could happen to a believer. So Paul acknowledges the Lord for saving him from the lion's mouth and makes the general affirmation, "The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom" (verse 18). The evil attacks that Paul has in mind are not those that affect the body only, such as shipwreck, flogging, stoning, and so on. The Lord did not rescue him from many of those (2 Cor 11:23-27). For him, the only rescue that counts is being rescued for the heavenly kingdom. This is the victory that counts, in the long run.

Paul's teaching and example show us that the popular gospel that says that material prosperity is the ultimate measure of faith is a lie. The faith of our fathers and mothers, the faith of St. Paul, is the faith that accepts material prosperity when it comes, but does not deny God even when it does not (Phil 4:12).

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