God is our ultimate judge

  • October 13, 2010
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Oct. 24 (Sirach 35:15-17, 20-22; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14)

Justice is often portrayed as a blindfolded figure holding a set of scales implying that justice is blind and even-handed.

Unfortunately, we know from experience that this is not always the case. We have seen notorious cases in which the perpetrator of a heinous crime wiggles through the net and walks away free thanks to a very expensive and high-powered defense team. Often justice depends far too much on where a person is situated in the social and economic scale and the influence of one’s personal connections.

On the other hand, many have been unjustly accused and convicted for lack of an effective spokesperson or defense. Even winning a judgment against a huge corporation can be an empty victory for they have the resources to drag the appeals’ process on forever. All of this can leave us with a sense of bitterness and cynicism and it was no different in the time in which Sirach was written.

The author assures us that we all stand before the judgment of one who cannot be bought, manipulated or influenced in any way. God is impartial — it does not matter who we are. God listens to and judges the unvarnished facts of the case according to the principles of divine justice. And the judgment that is given is always fair — no appeals necessary or allowed.

Will we see this justice in our own lifetime? Sometimes that is the case. People who are unjust and unkind to others sooner or later bring it down on their own heads — as the old saying goes, “what goes around comes around.” Cruel or unjust systems — political, economic or religious — ultimately sow the seeds of their own destruction. But even if justice is not given in this world we all eventually meet ourselves for human beings cannot cheat or trick God. It is important to live with a sense of moral purpose and to seek justice always, both for ourselves and others.

At the same time we must accept with serenity the fact that justice will not always unfold according to our preferred time and method.

The author of 2 Timothy, a follower of Paul, likens our spiritual journey to a race. The most important thing is not winning the race but finishing it. It is fidelity and commitment that is required rather than perfection. Paul was probably tempted to cut and run at times but as the passage says, he kept the faith. The crown of righteousness is a symbol for the “prize” given to those who keep trying regardless of difficulties, failures or mistakes. Our own culture does not value commitment or long-term fidelity as much as in the past — perhaps this is an antidote for our own “cut and run” attitude.

This wonderful story of the tax-collector and the Pharisee is as valid today as it was when it was written. It is not about Pharisees, it is about us and about all religious people. If the story were told today in a Christian setting nothing would change except the labels. The target is spiritual smugness and the conviction that one has arrived spiritually. The Pharisee in the story did not look deeply into himself — if he had done so, he would have realized that he despised in the tax collector what he feared most in himself. Being zealous and punctilious in obeying laws and rules does not create a just and loving person. The tax collector is one who is free of denial or illusions — he knows and feels his brokenness and desperate need for God. No excuses, no plea bargaining, no game playing, just a heartfelt plea for forgiveness.

This story has so much to teach us today, especially about the tendency to despise those of whom we do not approve. The debates that swirl around the issues of our day can scarcely be called debates for they lack the civility, decorum and respect that form the heart of the debating tradition.

Demonization and character assassination of those who think or act differently are the projection of our own inner darkness. St. Paul had it quite right with his insistence that we have all fallen short of the glory of God and stand in need of mercy and forgiveness.

A little humility and charity go a long, long way.