HOMILY THEME: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’” (Luke 18:14)

BY: Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC


HOMILY: Luke 18:9-14

“Once, during the High Holy Days, the sainted Rabbi Yitzchak Luria heard the voice of God telling him that for all his prayerful intensity there was one man in a neighboring town whose capacity for prayer exceeded even his own. As soon as he could, Rabbi Yitzchak traveled to that town and sought the man out.

“‘I have heard wondrous things regarding you,’ he said to the man when he found him. ‘Are you a Torah scholar?’ ‘No,’ the man said, ‘I have never had the opportunity to study.’ ‘Then you must be a master of the Psalms, a devotional genius who prays with great intensity.’ ‘No,’ the man said. ‘I have heard the Psalms many times, of course, but I do not even know one well enough to recite it.’ ‘And yet,’ cried Rabbi Luria, ‘I was told that the quality of your prayer surpasses even my own! What did you do during the High Holy Days that would merit such praise?’

“‘Rabbi,’ the man said, ‘I am illiterate. Of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet I know but ten. When I entered the synagogue and saw the congregation so fervent in their prayers, my heart shattered within me. I couldn’t pray at all. So I said, “Master of the Universe, here are the letters I know: aleph, beis, gimmel, daled, hay, vav, zayin, chet, tes, yud. Combine them in a manner you understand, and I hope they will be pleasing to you.” And then I repeated those ten letters over and over again, trusting God to weave them into words.’” (From Tales of the Hasidim)
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus tells a story to those who, like Rabbi Yitzchak, think themselves a cut above others. And, in fact, both the Hasidic tale and the gospel parable introduce us to characters who are truly virtuous and righteous. Rabbi Yitzchak and the Pharisee are not hypocrites; they are devout men who struggle to be even better. Yet each makes a serious error in comparing himself to others who, by outward appearance, seem less worthy in the eyes of God.

In fact, both stories teach us that God does not see as people see. God gazes upon the most interior regions of the heart where lay the truth; human judgement must of necessity rely on mere accidentals. As we can see, human estimation means very little to God. The Pharisee in the gospel, good man though he is, stands self-righteous before God, proud of what he’s made of himself in life, proud of his contribution to the spiritual life of the Jewish community.

The tax collector, though, was daily reminded of his lowly nature by the indignant citizenry from whom he extracted the allotted assessment. Entering the temple to pray, this dutiful public servant huddled in a darkened corner and begged God’s mercy, for he knew that his daily accusers were right when they called him jeering names. He was just a lowly man performing a lowly job, and he prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)

Unlike the upright, righteous Pharisee, the tax collector had no reputation to rely on, no respected public persona on which to rest. The tax collector had only the hope of God’s mercy, something the Pharisee didn’t think he needed. And in the end, God’s wide smile came to rest on the tax collector, the man who knew his proper place before the Awesome Divine Presence. “Jesus said, ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’” (Luke 18:14)

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