Saint Luke tells us that the synagogue official was “indignant” that Our Lord worked a miracle of healing on the Sabbath day (Luke 13:14). He wasn’t outraged or angry; but indignant, a reaction you might expect from someone who feels personally slighted or insulted. Is it possible that this man became jealous of Our Lord and his healing power because he felt that his own authority as a religious leader was being undermined?
Isn’t it amazing how this man missed out on the miracle that took place right in front of him, all because he was so concerned for himself? Wouldn’t you expect him to be happy instead, because this woman—who was probably a member of his own congregation—was finally healed after eighteen years of suffering? But rather than being grateful, he justified his resentment by resorting to the letter of the law: no work on the Sabbath meant no miracles either.
Our Lord responded by pointing back to the very law that the synagogue official knew so well. Our Lord reminded him how animals are allowed to be untied so they could graze on the Sabbath. Shouldn’t this woman, who was much more valuable than an ox or a donkey, be loosed from her bonds? The official had no choice but to listen to the praise and wonder flowing from his congregation—not towards himself but towards this visiting rabbi.
It’s important to be on the lookout for similar dilemmas in our own lives. Life is full of situations in which we are tempted to feel neglected or undermined. But dwelling on these offences is likely to stunt our growth in faith. What’s more, if we spend our energy justifying these feelings we, like the synagogue official, risk missing the miracles God is working in our very midst.
As you know, the readings for Mass on Sundays are arranged in a three-year cycle, so it’s three years ago that we heard these very same readings for this Mass of the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Now, you would have thought that a three-yearly cycle would give the homilist more than enough food for thought. But for me, the readings for today’s Mass are exceptional and unique, because every single time I hear or read today’s Gospel my thoughts return to when I overheard a very good and pious woman saying to her friend after Mass: “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee in the Gospel today!” Those words, which I heard twenty-five years ago are indelibly recorded in my memory, and they inspired me to write the homily you’re going to hear today. Perhaps I was inspired, because most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, are like the Pharisee in the Gospel. We do exactly the same as he did. We parade our good deeds before God, and we use them as a justification for looking down on others. Now, we may not do this in so many words, but at the very least we think it. And so, I want to tell you about several people who went into church to pray and this is how they prayed.
The first, a man, prayed like this, he said: ‘Thank you, Lord, that I have a good job. Mind you, I worked hard to get it, and I’ve worked even harder to keep it. I think I can say that I’ve proved myself worthy of it. I thank you that I have never had to live off social security. Every penny I possess I’ve earned by the sweat of my brow. I’m not like those layabouts who are forever sponging on society. They should be put to work instead of getting constant hand-outs. Thank God I’m not like them!
The second person, a woman, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord, that my children are well behaved. I’m not saying they’re angels, but you won’t find them going around causing trouble or terrifying elderly people. Nor will you hear them using bad language. Not like those ruffians on the other side of town who run wild and do whatever they like. Why, Lord, even you would be shocked if you heard their language! These are the criminals of tomorrow, and I’ll make sure my children stay well clear of them.
The third person, another woman, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord that my marriage is working out. Of course Jim and I have had our problems, but we’ve stuck together and we’ve worked things out. Not like those young couples whose marriages break up within a year or two of starting. The first sign of a problem and one or both of them make a dash for freedom. Obviously they can’t take the rough with the smooth, so I’m glad I’m not like them!
The fourth person, a man, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord that I can take a drink and leave it at that. I’m not like those other men who don’t know when to stop. They live in the pub and only surface for fresh air. Like the man next door who comes home legless every night. I can hear his wife giving out at him and the children screaming. Thank you Lord that I’m not like him.’
The fifth person, a woman, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord that I have been able to stick to the religion I was brought up in, unlike many of my neighbours. Some of them are like the ox and the ass of the crib: they appear in church only once a year! Maybe I’m a bit of a traditionalist. For instance I don’t go for Communion in the hand. I don’t think I’m worthy of touching the Host. But when I see Mrs-so-and-so coming up the aisle with her hand stretched out it sends a shudder down my spine. Next thing, she’ll be putting herself forward as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. Thank you Lord that I’m not like her.’
The sixth person, a man, didn’t even go inside the church. He said this prayer as he passed by: “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like the crowd who go in there every Sunday to worship you. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocrites, if you ask me. They give each other a handshake as a sign of friendship and peace, but I know for a fact that when they come out some of them won’t even talk to one another. They say they worship you, but I know different. They worship money and things. At least I’m being honest. I know I’m no saint, but then I don’t pretend to be one. Thank you Lord that I’m not like them!
Now, I could go on all day giving examples, but the point that I am trying to make, and perhaps a little laboriously, is that there is a Pharisee lurking within each one of us. All the people I mentioned – and they are all fictitious, but maybe you recognised yourself among them – all these people were very sincere folk. They weren’t lying. They did the things they said they did. But the same was true of the Pharisee who spoke with Our Lord. He was scrupulously honest; he was a faithful family man, and a meticulous observer of the Jewish Law. In fact he did even more than the Law required of him. Jewish Law required only one fast a year, but he fasted twice a year. The Law only required tithes on certain commodities, but he paid tithes on all of them.
So, where did he go wrong? Well, first of all his attitude to God was completely wrong. He believed that he had run up a formidable credit-balance with God, and as a result he thought he had God in his debt. So God owes him salvation. His attitude towards his neighbour was also wrong. He felt that his good and upright life put him above everyone else. It not only gave him a warm inner glow, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it also inflated his ego and he put himself up on a pedestal. And from this lofty pedestal he looked down on others, especially on the tax collectors and the prostitutes; but he didn’t just look down on them, he despised them.
And so, this man was oozing with pride, and this pride poisoned him at the core of his being, and it infected all his good deeds. There wasn’t a shred of humility in him; because humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, warts and all. And humility is the soil in which all the other virtues grow and flourish; without it they either go to seed or they never flower.
And so, the Pharisee serves as a warning to the self-righteous. It’s so easy to deceive ourselves. You only have to look around and you see so much crime and corruption and injustice in the world and, though you may never say it aloud, you may think: ‘Thank God I’m not like all those others who steal and cheat and murder and the rest.’ Yes, there is a pride and a selfishness that can exist among even good and devout people; but it’s impossible to weigh the sins of others without putting one’s own fingers on the scales.
The tax collector prayed: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In saying this he was simply being realistic. He was only telling the truth. “I know I am a sinner.” If we can say these same words with conviction and humility, then we are very close to God, and it gives us a great sense of freedom. We no longer have to pretend that we are holy.
Being virtuous doesn’t mean we won’t slip and slide and fall occasionally; rather being virtuous means we’re prepared to get up and try again.
Today we honour the memory of Saint John Paul II, whom we all knew and some of us had met. Without doubt Pope John Paul’s teaching and example led many to faith. His exceptional apostolic zeal, particularly for families, young people and the sick, led him to numerous pastoral visits throughout the world. Among the many fruits which he has left as a heritage to the Church are above all his rich Magisterium and the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as the Code of Canon Law. He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2014 and his feast falls on the anniversary of his election to the papacy. History will remember him as one of the great popes of our time, if not of all time. Today we ask his intercession and protection for the Church.
You may have read about the gardener in Chile who has cultivated a tree that grows apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, and nectarines: all on the same plant, and which has been called the Fruit Cocktail Tree. The orchard owner we meet in today’s Gospel would have been astonished to ever see such a tree, especially since his own fig tree was struggling to produce any fruit at all.
Now, fruit cocktail trees don’t grow naturally. Gardeners develop them by grafting branches from different species into a host tree. The host tree’s sap then flows into all the limbs, old and new alike, nourishing them all and eventually producing a medley of fruits.
Now, if you think about it, this isn’t all that different from the way God grafts his own spiritual fruits into our hearts; and the sap we need to bear this harvest comes from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is like the patient gardener in today’s Gospel: the man who offered to personally care for the owner’s failing fig tree. God’s grace allows us to grow a supernatural yield of different fruits.
It may now be Autumn, but this year’s growing season is far from over, and we still have time to identify at least one spiritual fruit that we would especially like to cultivate in our lives this year. May we all have the courage to prepare our hearts in order for such fruit to grow and flourish. Like a gardener we need to break up the soil of our heart, which involves hard work, then plant the seed, water it, care for it, and patiently wait for it to bear fruit.
Unity is hard to describe. Expressed in music, it occurs when every note is in harmony. In politics, it comes about through debate and compromise. And expressed mathematically, as in today’s first reading, it is expressed in a number: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. This is the unity St. Paul encourages the Church to pursue at all costs, but as Christian history shows us, unity is both precious and rare.
Most people want to experience real unity; after all, who enjoys division and rejection? Who likes being separated and isolated from other people? So, how do we achieve unity? St. Paul’s advice is a good place to start: “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love.”
So unity requires humility. Accepting that other people are just as important and loved by God as we are, is vital. Our fallen nature likes to think of the world revolving around us—but it doesn’t. We push to get our own way, or at least to have the last word. But humility seeks to build up other people and to make sure their voices are heard and their concerns are acknowledged.
St. Paul also urges us to be patient with each other. He knows that unity takes time. It must be cultivated and maintained. Few things bring about unity more powerfully than the decision to sacrifice our own agenda for the good of others.
Finally, St. Paul gives us the most important key to unity: the Holy Trinity. One Spirit … One Lord … One God. How does their unity look? Jesus obeys the Father. The Holy Spirit speaks the words of Jesus to us. The Father glorifies the Son. Each Person honours the others before himself. If we want to create, and maintain, an environment of unity, we must start by contributing to an environment of honour, where we must look to each other’s needs before our own.
Imagine there was a big book that could capture the stories of everyone who has ever made a difference in this world. Do you think your name would be in that book?
Believe it or not, it would be. Whether you recognize it or not, we are all important players in the game of life. We all have key roles in the unfolding of God’s master plan. Simply by being who we are, we are changing history. Our words, our actions, our choices, our behaviour, our attitudes are all helping to shape other people and their perception of God. Even our prayers are changing the world.
It can be hard to fathom this truth. If we’re not careful, it can even make us feel a little bit defeated. We may look at our faults and failings and worry that we are making the wrong kind of mark on history. How can we ever advance God’s plan when we spend so much time and effort dealing with our own mistakes and weaknesses?
Saint Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians today urges us not to worry, because there is a mighty power at work within us. Saint Paul tells us that if we try our best to connect with the Holy Spirit every day, we will be able to “accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine”
Pope Francis echoes Saint Paul’s encouragement in his Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. He writes: “To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds.” The pope reminds us that: “evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit” (178).
God needs people in our little corner of the world, and at this particular time in history. God has placed us here for a reason. He knows what we are all capable of doing. Even in our imperfections, we are still the perfect fit for the work God has asked us to do. If we become the instruments God has created us to be, and if we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, then we can do so much to change the world.
Today we honour the memory of Saints Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, four other Jesuit priests and two lay volunteers who were martyred in their efforts to announce the Good News to the native peoples in New York and Canada. While it is fitting to recognise the sacrifice of those who gave their lives to establish the Christian faith in North America, it seems equally appropriate to ask forgiveness for the suffering and harm caused to the native peoples who were displaced from their lands by European settlers who took it by force. Today we have a greater appreciation for the chequered history of the early years of the United States and Canada. We can mourn lost cultures and languages that disappeared as native peoples were forcibly relocated and taught European ways. As we remember the first North American martyrs, we thank God for the gift of faith planted in that continent, but we also ask forgiveness for the harm that accompanied that process. Let us pledge ourselves to be aware of the consequences of our actions.
Many people will think of the parable we’ve just heard in terms of the word final. We picture the final hour when Our Lord will return to judge the world. Once that final hour comes, we’ll have no more time to get ready; our time will be up.
Or we imagine him coming in our own final hour, when we will have to give him an account of our lives. It’s rather sobering to realize that there will be a time when we will stand before the Lord, warts and all, when all our excuses will count for nothing. How can we ever prepare for such a day?
The answer is that Our Lord himself prepares us by coming to us over and over again during the course of our lives. We can all think of the many unexpected events that have happened to us. In all of these situations, Our Lord is with us saying: “Here I am. But are you ready for me?”
To prepare for Our Lord’s return means to welcome him into our hearts at every opportunity. It means looking at every situation through the eyes of faith, trying our best to find God’s presence and his will. It means assessing every circumstance in our lives according to his will, and according to the promises of the Gospel, so that we can face them with heavenly wisdom and godly strength. In a nutshell, it means living with our eyes fixed on heaven and not just on this earth.
God wants to open our eyes today so that we can gain a heavenly perspective. He wants to expand our vision so that we can see his hand in every situation that we encounter and so that we can surrender our lives to him more fully. By doing so we can properly prepare for the Final Day when heaven comes to earth, and when we creatures of earth are lifted up to heaven.