First reading Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14, 16-19
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 33(34):2-3,17-19,23
Second reading 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Gospel Luke 18:9-14
Every now and then I come across someone who will tell me that they are a Catholic but don’t go to church anymore because “it’s full of hypocrites.” What I’d really like to say is, “well, you’d fit in very well there then.” But, of course, this mightn’t go down very well! On a serious note, however, I always find this a very curious reason not to go to church. Such people seem to imply that church goers go to church because they think they are good and virtuous, or at least want to be seen as such. To me this doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. If one were already good, righteous and holy, wouldn’t that eliminate the need to go to church? In that case we wouldn’t need a saviour! Isn’t the reason we come to church precisely because we are not good, righteous or holy, but are sinners in need of God’s healing grace and mercy? I don’t know about you, dear brothers and sisters, but I can’t save myself! I need a saviour. I can’t justify myself; I can’t become good or holy without the Good and Holy God who bestows himself upon me through his Church! In fact, no one can. If someone thinks they can become good, righteous or holy without God and his Church, they are kidding themselves unto perdition.
You see, God is the supreme Good and source of all Goodness. Jesus says in Mark 10:18, “no one is good but God alone.” Scripture also reveals that God alone is holy (Rev 15:4; Is 6:3) and that righteousness belongs to God (Is 45:24; Jn 17:25). These things, (righteousness, goodness and holiness) are attributes of God, and any righteousness, goodness or holiness that human beings might attain, can only be found in relation to God who bestows himself upon us. This is the meaning of grace– the self-giving of God whose contact with us effects and changes us, transforming us to be more and more in his own likeness. In case you think I’m making this up, this is the main topic of St Paul’s entire project as he fought fiercely against the idea that we could become righteous by following the Law. If that idea were true, we would in effect be able to save ourselves, bestowing goodness and holiness upon ourselves by our own brute effort to keep the rules. In this case, it becomes all about us; we could just be good people without any need or reference to God. St Paul says no! Only God’s grace can justify us. Only by the self-donation of God in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit can we be transformed from the fallen, sinful creatures that we are, to share in the Goodness and Holiness that is proper to God alone!
If you still don’t believe me, let’s consider Jesus’ parable which we’ve just heard concerning those “who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.” A more literal translation of the Greek reads that he spoke this parable to “those who put confidence in themselves that they are righteous…” (i.e., those who trust in their own righteousness). We hear that there was a Pharisee listing off all his virtues and good deeds: “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” Now, in order to feel the full weight of Jesus’ parable, we must understand, the Pharisee is what most people would consider a “good person” by the standards of his day and even of our day. He himself points out that he is not greedy or unjust or adulterous, and that he fasts and pays tithes. These are indeed good things, dear brothers and sisters! By contrast, tax collectors were public sinners who collaborated with the Roman oppressors, enriching themselves at the expense of their own people. They were, by the standards of their day, and even by our own day, not good. Now, with this in mind, here comes the force of our parable: It’s the good person who goes home unjustified before God. It’s the sinner, the one whom most people would consider to be a bad person, who goes home justified “at rights with God.” Dear brothers and sisters, this is truly shocking. There is a pervasive attitude in our own day that says, ‘as long as we are good people we will be saved and go to heaven.’ Well, Jesus’ word shows just the opposite. Those who trust in their own goodness and good deeds, even though they be truly good deeds, are not right with God. It’s the person who knows his sinfulness and brokenness and is ready to confess it and beg God for mercy that shall go home justified! This is because in the former case, one relies on self-righteousness and goodness as it perceived by the world. Whereas, in the latter case, like the repentant tax collector, one relies on the grace and mercy of God to bestow Goodness from above.
Let this be a lesson, dear friends. We do not come to church because we are good people! This would indeed make us hypocrites. We come here because we need to come, because without God it is impossible for us to be righteous, good or holy. We come here to beg the Lord’s healing mercy, that he might bestow his Righteousness, his Goodness and his Holiness, which we encounter at Mass personified in our Eucharistic Lord. Only this, and not our own human standards of goodness, can save us. Brothers and sisters, if the Church is full of sinners, then those who cry hypocrisy might find themselves in familiar company.