Today’s readings remind us that the Lord is a judge that we can trust, and he helps us judge ourselves better that we can, because he sees beyond pride, ambition, or depression.
In the First Reading Sirach reminds us that the Lord is completely impartial and hears every “case” that is presented to him in prayer, even when earthly justice fails. When we pray, we stand before Our Lord and judge, and he is not indifferent to whatever injustices we face in this world. The just Judge lets no case slip through the cracks or get lost in a backlog. He always strives to win justice for those who serve him justly and act justly toward others.
In today’s Second Reading Paul faces earthly injustice alone, but he is not discouraged, because he knows that the just Judge is with him and that even if, at the end of his life, he suffers at the hands of injustice, the Lord will ultimately give him the justice he deserves. This is one of Paul’s last letters, written from prison. He sees the end of his life is drawing near, and we know he was beheaded in Rome under the reign of the emperor Nero. The world of his time was unjust in many ways, but its worst injustice was being separated from the Lord and, as a result, mankind being separated from each other. There’s seemingly no reward in the world for sharing the Gospel, but Paul sees the true prize beyond this world: the reward the just Judge has waiting for him.
In today’s Gospel the Pharisee decides to become the judge of himself and others and shows his flaws. Every moment of prayer, in addition to being supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or intercession, is a moment of truth. It’s a moment where we acknowledge who we are before God, who is immune to all spin, all subterfuge, all self-promotion. It’s a moment where we ask ourselves whether God’s view of us and our view of ourselves coincide. We know this is not easy, because Our Lord knows us better than we know ourselves.
Despite this, we know deep down that lowering our estimation of ourselves is probably more in line than increasing it. Our Lord promises us that if we “aim low” we’ll receive the recognition that counts: his recognition. The Publican in today’s Gospel knew he was a sinner; Our Lord didn’t deny it. The Publican knew he needed mercy and didn’t deserve it. Prayer in that moment for him was a moment of truth: the truth he claimed was the truth as Our Lord saw it. He received mercy from God for his interior honesty.
It’s not surprising that today’s Gospel says the Pharisee “spoke [his] prayer to himself”: it could just mean he didn’t say his prayer out loud, but it could mean that he was so wrapped up in smug self-worship that he really was praying to himself instead of God. Our Lord says he did not go home justified like the Publican; he’d really accomplished nothing of worth and just went home. The Pharisee judged the Publican praying nearby, and he also judged himself to be just, but Our Lord confirmed that he wasn’t, probably due to his selfishness, arrogance, and lack of charity. The Publican knows he faces a just Judge in his prayer, which is why he rightly laments his faults, but he also knows that he faces a merciful Judge and throws himself upon the mercy of the “court.” Whenever we pray we stand before the just Judge who has shown us mercy and continues to do so.
Among the Beatitudes the Lord teaches us that those who hunger and thirst for justice are satisfied. The justice we seek for ourselves is connected to the justice we seek for others. In today’s First Reading the Lord teaches us that “The one who serves God willingly is heard.” It was that fact that consoled St. Paul when he was in prison, facing death. Make an effort this week to hunger and thirst for justice for everyone, not just yourself.
Readings: Sirach 35:12–14, 16–18; Psalm 34:2–3, 17–19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18; Luke 18:9–14. See also 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C and 3rd Week of Lent, Saturday.