10th Sunday after Pentecost
How Are You Today?
"How are you today?"
"Fine, thank you."
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are…”. How are you, Mr. Pharisee? asks God. Fine, thank you. Just fine, God. Mighty fine.
And how are you, Mr. Publican? Standing afar off… he smites upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. How are you? I’m a sinner. I’m not doing too well.
When God asks the Pharisee how he’s doing, the Pharisee is only too pleased to rattle off all the good things he does. But when God asks the publican the same question, the poor man can’t even look him in the face—“he would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven.” Why does he ask these two men this question? He already knows the answer, because he’s God. He asks because he wants each of these men to express to him how they think they’re doing. The Pharisee is smug and complacent with his good deeds, the publican is ashamed of his sins. And our Lord tells us that it is the publican who goes down to his house justified rather than the other. The Pharisee exalts himself and God will humble him. The publican humbles himself and God will exalt him.
Today our Lord asks us: How are you doing? And so do we dare to reply to him, “Fine thanks?” That’s something we might say to the cashier at Kroger’s if she asks us how we’re doing today. But it isn’t a fitting reply to the great high God who knows exactly how we’re doing, and is looking for something other than some glib, smug assessment of our own self-satisfaction. The publican shows us what answer God actually prefers. Let’s take our cue from him, and make our response to God today as is fitting, with the humble recognition that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy, and that no matter how many good deeds we manage to accomplish, it is never enough until we reach the perfection that God demands of us.
Are any of us perfect yet? The day we think we have finally achieved perfection is the day we will be condemned by God for the sin of pride. We must realize that we will never achieve perfection, but that God looks at our efforts to achieve it rather than our ultimate success. We strive and we fail. Our striving is good and we will be judged on how hard we strive. Our failing is not good, and yet it is inevitable. God sets the high standard of perfection for a reason. He asks the impossible of us, knowing full well it is impossible and that we will never reach it. We will all fail to some degree or other. And yet our efforts may still save us. This salvation lies not in the failure itself, but in the humble acknowledgment of our failures and our willingness to get up and try again.
Humility is a very difficult virtue to achieve. Really, the only way to achieve it properly is in avoiding the opposing vice, pride. It’s better not to concentrate on being humble. As soon as we focus on the humility itself, we fall into pride. It’s ironic, isn’t it, but the instant we try assessing how humble we are, we cease to be humble. We start to take pride in our humility. So don’t think about humility. Don’t do as the Pharisee does and focus on the good things we do, the degree of humility we’ve managed to accomplish. Instead, focus on the false pride we cling to, smiting our breast with a sincere mea culpa, asking for God’s mercy, and resolving to do better. Maybe then, and only then, will God actually grant us that mercy, maybe then we will go down to our house justified. We can hope for that but never presume it, for the second we do is the second we become the Pharisee, exalting ourselves in the presence of God. And just as we loathe the smugness of the Pharisee, so too will God look upon our own complacent satisfaction in ourselves.
The perfect example to follow is that given to us by our blessed Mother in her canticle, the Magnificat. “He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden, for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” She recognizes her own lowliness and is in awe that God has deigned to make her blessed among women. Note how she gives all the credit to God for blessing her: “he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is his Name.” During this Octave of our Lady’s Assumption into heaven, we have before us the ultimate example of the humble child of God who goes to her house justified, the one who actually did reach perfection and yet remained humble. She understands perfectly that the Pharisee is not pleasing to God—"He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.. he hath put down the mighty from their seat.” And she knows too that God “hath exalted the humble and meek”. If we want to follow her, justified, into the gates of heaven, it’s our job now to think and act like her. If she who is without sin, who truly is perfect, can still be humble, how greater is our own need to abase ourselves, keeping our eyes down to the earth, and raising only our voices as we cry out “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
For a view of the Holy City of Jerusalem
from the same spot where our Lord wept, see the description on our
home page of the church that now stands there.