Sirach, however, has a very different view of life and of God, one that should make many people squirm. Sirach’s God is an impartial and incorruptible judge, who is not swayed by a person’s rank, station in life, power or wealth. God listens to the merits of each case and renders judgment in favour of the one who has been truly wronged. In other words, unjust and devious folks cannot expect any preferential treatment — God is beyond human manipulation.
God will listen to the prayers of the humble, oppressed and persecuted and will respond with justice and deliverance. Some might object that this does not appear to be the case — many wicked and unjust folks die in their beds at advanced ages without ever paying the price for their actions.
Innocent blood, corruption and oppression seem endless. The Bible teaches us to see the big picture — justice often takes time, but it always arrives. The Israelites endured slavery, exile and persecution for centuries without losing their faith. As the old saying goes, “the wheels of justice grind slowly but exceedingly fine.”
Communism and Nazism were both defeated — to be replaced by other horrors to be sure — but in the end God’s way will prevail. A cold, impersonal universe in which there is no meaning or justice is enough to drive anyone mad. The firm belief that God is present even in life’s messiness, horror and suffering gives us hope and courage to keep soldiering on and the inspiration to do our best to create a better world.
The author of 2 Timothy — possibly but not likely Paul — knew well the presence of God in suffering and persecution. He celebrated having endured the race of a life in faith to the end. Note that there is nothing said about finishing in first place but merely finishing the race — effort is what counts. He was very conscious that for the most part his sole support was the Lord’s presence. We are never alone; we are never without resources in our own race. We need but open our minds and hearts to the divine assistance that is ours for the asking.
The pages of history are peppered with the dark exploits of tyrants, madmen and murderers, but a fair amount of the evil in the world is at the hands of the “respectable and righteous.” People in this category do what is correct and “good” according to their culture and traditions, or more often than not merely the opinions of others. Their names will not usually be splashed across the front pages of newspapers and they may pass their lives as respected pillars of the community. They lack one vital element of true humanity: self-knowledge.
The Pharisee in the story — and we shouldn’t beat up on Pharisees, for they were no different than we are — was quite religiously and socially respectable. He did not, however, see the darkness, selfishness and injustice in himself. Instead, he projected it all on the hated tax collector.
The tax collector had no mask or aura of respectability to hide behind. Quite the opposite, he was the epitome of all that others hated and despised. But he knew it, didn’t like it, and wanted to do better. He begged God for forgiveness. Jesus insisted that this man was “right with God,” not the respectable one.
Self-righteousness can rob us of compassion, understanding and sensitivity to the pain of others. Self-knowledge, humility and acknowledgment of sinfulness are essential elements of healing and spiritual growth.
In recent years, the Church has been humbled and forced to face its own sinfulness. For too long it was simply projected on other groups and individuals. In the end, this will be something positive, for out of this purification will emerge a Church more humble, compassionate and holy.