Reflection on the Readings at Mass for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C. The Liturgical Sense of the Scriptures Podcast, by Catholic Author and Theologian David L. Gray. READINGS: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18 (First Reading), 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 (Second Reading), Luke 18:9-14 (Gospel Reading)
How the Liturgy Offers a Perfect Model to Teach Humility
To be humble simply means that I am no greater than anyone else, nor do I have to aspire to be great in this world, because He who dwells in me and He in whom I abide is the greatest of all; Christ Jesus with the Holy Spirit and in union with the Father. Christian humility expresses itself in a way that shows a childlike dependence and neediness and reliance on God, which in every age presents itself as a subversive melody into the cacophony of the world where we have been taught that the older a person becomes, the more independent and self-sufficient and self-sustaining they ought to be. Unless you are under the age of eighteen, handicap, or disabled in some way, the expectation from the world is that you should not have to rely on anyone for anything. Yet, the consistent message from our Eternal Father is that I need you to rely on me for everything, even things as basic and easily acquired or made as water or bread and wine, because I know that you are better with me, than you are apart from me.
Ben Sira, the author of Sirach in today’s First Reading from 35:12-14, 16-18 on this 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time also understands what a healthy relationship with God looks like. He writes, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed . . . the Lord is not deaf to the wail of orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint . . . The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” The thing about people who truly need help from God is that they pray not just with their mouths, but deeply with their whole heart, and that is the type of prayer that Ben Sira is saying pulls and tugs at the ears of God.
The Apostle Saint Paul had made his whole life a prayer of humility and a type of liturgy from the very moment he encountered the risen Lord. Paul had become so humble and so dependent on Christ that he no longer identified as himself, but as who he was in Christ; Paul an apostle of Christ; Paul a servant of Christ; Paul a slave of Christ. Here in today’s Second Reading from Second Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, conscious coming to the end of his life, the Apostle sees himself as a type of liturgical offering in writing, “I am already being poured out like a libation.” As he anticipates his reward in Heaven for competing well in this race, he also recalls when he realized that it was the Lord who he could count on to always be there for him, even when man chose not to be. “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Indeed, the Psalm is true according to the words of Ben Sira and the Apostle that the “Lord is my strength and my shield, in him my heart trusts; so I am helped and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him” (Psalms 28:7).
In the Gospels, Jesus’ parables are intended to be didactic (instructive) by putting into dialogue and into conflict two or more types of behaviors. After the conflict has been heard by His audience, Jesus will then explain what lesson should be learned from it. In the instant case, in today’s Gospel Reading from Luke 18:9-14, Jesus has put into dialogue a proud man who He labels a Pharisee, who belonged to a high social standing, and a humble man who He labels as a tax collector, who belonged to a despised class in society. The text says that Jesus addressed this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” Notice how the text says that the Pharisee “took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,” which is in conflict with the tax collector who “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed.” Instantly, we see that the proud man wasn’t even speaking to God through prayer, but to himself; praying about himself seemingly in need to convince himself of his own self-righteousness. I’m not greedy, dishonest, and adulterous like everyone else, or like this tax collector. I follow the tradition and the law by fasting twice a week and I don’t cheat on my tithes. I’m even praying in the particular place where goods Jews are supposed to pray.
To be fair, the Pharisee does have a good point. He saw the world all around him crumbling, as many of us see today, and he was just stating that he’s not part of that problem. Good for him. The problem is that he was too concerned in defending who he was not in the world, rather than humbling proclaiming who he is in God. In contrast, like the Apostle who announced I am Paul an apostle of Christ; Paul a servant of Christ; Paul a slave of Christ, here was the tax collector announcing himself before God saying not who is not, but who he is, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The lesson out of this conflict, according to Jesus, is the tax collector went home justified, but the Pharisee did not; “for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The liturgy of the Holy Mass intends to fill us with the light of humility by modeling dependence and reliance on God through giving us what to say and when to say it; what bodily gestures to use and when to use them. To pray and to confess not just with our mouths, but with our whole heart, mind, body, and soul. In this way, the liturgy is calling us to be in Christ who said, “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself gave me commandment of what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).
Take notice during the liturgy that spectacular moment when it is that the Church intends for us to grasp the reason why we ought to develop a humble heart. It is right after we have made our offering to God, which is principally the work of our human hands, particularly the bread and wine, but most especially our very lives that we are offering up. It is then during the Eucharistic Prayers that the Deacon, or the Priest, pours wine and a little water into the chalice, saying quietly, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” After the Priest the takes the chalice and holds it slightly raised above the altar and prays quietly in gratitude for the wine offering, he then bows profoundly and prays quietly again, saying, “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.” In this way, the Priest is praying that as the Lord humbled Himself to share in our humanity, through humbling partaking in His Body and Blood may He find us worthy to share in His divinity.
Truly, there are only two types of people in this world. There are the humble and there are those who are about to be humbled. The liturgy of the Holy Mass intends and hopes to form us to be a humble People by gently provoking us into being humble. For, that is a much safer path to travel than being struck down by God because of our pride, but for some that hard path will be necessary.
This is just one way how the readings at Mass this Sunday connect to the liturgy and how the liturgy is forming us how to live our lives in the world. Be in the world what you have received through the liturgy.