It's one thing to reflect on how the heroes of our faith related to God; it's quite another to examine our own relationship with God.

The unknown author of I Timothy, writing a generation or two after Paul's death, frames his idea of Paul's thoughts before his martyrdom in a first-person narrative. Not knowing what Paul actually was thinking at that crucial point of his existence, the writer simply guesses (II Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18).

"I have competed well;" the author's hero states, "I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearance."

According to the writer, Paul's certainty of salvation is unwavering. He leaves this earth with no regrets. His only complaint: When push came to shove, none of his friends "appeared on my behalf." You and I might ask what we did to deserve this desertion. It never crosses Paul's mind to do so.

Certitude

Such unwavering certitude is one of the reasons we more easily identify with the sentiments expressed in the first and third readings.

Knowing they can't fall back on the goodness of their actions, the weak and lowly in Sirach's passage can only fall back on God's commitment to help the weak and lowly (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18).

"Yahweh is a God of justice," Sirach writes, "who knows no favorites." In Scripture, "justice" almost always refers to the relationships we form with one another, including our relationship with God and His relationship with us. We cringe and even protest when we hear of politicians appointing friends and relatives to high-paying jobs. We presume such people don't have the ability or talents necessary to fill these positions. Some strings were pulled to get them their jobs.

Yet, when it comes to God and us, nepotism is not only acceptable; it's presumed. God is predisposed to those with whom He relates. "Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet God hears the cry of the oppressed. Those who serve God willingly are heard; their petition reaches the heavens." A mutual relationship guarantees God's favor.

In the Gospel (Luke 18: 9-14), Jesus reveals what's at the heart of such a relationship. God doesn't respond to us because we can produce a list of accomplishments. On the contrary, those who consistently fall back on such lists don't have the "righteousness" God expects. Remember, this parable of the two praying Jews is directed to "those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else."

Humility

The Pharisee presumes his list demands God's attention. "O God," he prays, "I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income." He has a right to Yahweh's ear.

Meanwhile, the sin-conscious employee of an army of occupation "stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'"

"I tell you," Jesus announces, "the tax collector went home justified, not the former; for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

(10/21/04)