Deacon Cornellís Homily
October 27-28, 2001 Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C
As we have seen so close at hand over the past few weeks, religion can be the best thing in the world, giving comfort and strength in times of chaos and terror, and it can be the worst, used to justify unspeakable violence and terror. The parable that Jesus tells in todayís Gospel gets right to the heart of how that can be.
All of the major monotheistic religions start with an experience of being chosen by God, of being singled out by God for a special part in Godís plan for salvation. Our Judeo-Christian-Catholic tradition is steeped in this notion. From Abraham, to Moses and the Israelites in slavery, through David and the prophets, to John the Baptist, Mary, the apostles, and Paul, our story is one of people and peoples being chosen by God. And it doesnít stop there, 2000 years ago. How many people here are chosen by God?
All of us are. In baptism we were anointed priest, prophet and king. We are, as Peter tells us in his first letter, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation. And it is important for us to know that we are chosen or we canít go anywhere with our faith. But we canít stop there. Unless we understand how God chooses and why, it is a dangerous, dangerous notion.
The critical thing that we have to realize is being chosen by God is not something that is earned. God does not choose those who are worthy to be chosen. This is very different from our human experience of being chosen, isnít it? In the playground, the best athletes get chosen first; in the classroom, the smartest are chosen for awards; in beauty contests, the prettiest are chosen winners, and on, and on. For the rest of lives, one is chosen because of something they are or have done.
Because of this human experience of chosen-ness, we can easily think that the chosen-ness we experience in our religion is earned as well. God chooses us because we are better than those others, who are greedy and dishonest and adulterous, or worse yet, tax collectors. After all we go to church, donít we? We put money in the collection; we keep the commandments. Thank you God for recognizing how good we are and choosing us.
Itís pretty easy to think this, isnít it?
But when we look carefully at whom God has chosen over the course of our salvation history, it is never someone who is worthy of choice. As a matter of fact, with the exception of Mary, God chooses those who by human standards are failures. Who was Abraham to be chosen to father nations, an insignificant Middle Eastern nomad, eighty years old and childless? Moses was a murder, a fugitive from justice with a speech impediment to boot. The prophets continually remind Israel that they are the most unworthy of nations.† David was the youngest and smallest of his family, and he turned into quite the adulterer and murderer. Peter was a coward and a hothead. Paul was at least an accessory to murder, holding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death.
Godís choice is pure gift, a gift that is given not as a reward for right behavior, but a gift that is given so that the chosen might be transformed. Even Mary acknowledges her unworthiness in her response to being chosen; she acknowledges whose action this is: ďMy soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. All generations will call me blessed because the Almighty has done great things to me, and holy is Godsí name.Ē
I used to think that God chose the unworthy so that there would be no mistake about whoís power was at work in salvation. We are chosen, not because we do things right, as the Pharisee brags, but so that we can be transformed by Godís choosing us. God chooses us so that we will be transformed into people who are in love with God, and so show others what a wonderful thing it is to be loved by God. Religion is not about doing things right at all, but it is about being transformed by Godís love into the incarnation of Godís love. As I have gotten older I have started to realize that the ones who are most likely to be transformed by a relationship are those who have failed, or have suffered. Those who do everything right seldom see a need beyond themselves.
As any of you know who are married, or have children, or have parents, to be transformed by love, you must submit yourself wholeheartedly to that relationship. You must die to yourself so that love can transform you to something better.
When Jesus says that the tax collectorís prayer is the better one he is pointing out that the tax collector is undergoing a transformation while the Pharisee is patting himself on the back for doing the right things. We always hear the Pharisees in conflict with Jesus so we tend to think of them as the bad guys. But in Jesusí time and place, they were the ones who were trying to get the Jews to live out their chosen-ness in their day-to-day life, not just at the temple. And the things the Pharisee brags about are good things. But he doesnít get it. He still thinks it is his doing. He is far from being transformed and no one sees Godís love in him.
The assumption we can make about the tax collector is that he is greedy and dishonest. But somehow in the midst of his brokenness he has realized that only God has the power to save him. And in that very realization he has started to be transformed.
In a few minutes, we will all pray the tax collectorís prayer, wonít we? ďLord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.Ē None of us are worthy, no matter how many commandments we keep, or how many Masses we go to. No one is ever worthy of the gift of love. But we can be transformed by it. And we say that prayer with hope and confidence, knowing that God has said the Word that will heal us. (pointing to Jesus on the crucifix), the word that became flesh and dwelt among us, and died for us so that we could hear it loud and clear. He has chosen us by name in baptism. And by coming forward with that prayer in our hearts as well as on our lips, we start to be transformed into the Body of Christ, the love of God incarnate. And that is the best thing in the world.