The Pauline disciple who composed II Timothy ends his brief work with the Apostle's last words for late first-century Christians. "I am already being poured out like a libation," he writes. "The time of my dissolution is near. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith" (2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18).

To understand what it means biblically "to keep the faith," we should not only turn to Sunday's other two readings, but also listen to a small part of Congressman John Lewis' autobiography, "Walking with the Wind." At the age of five, John was given the task of caring for his very poor family's flock of 60 chickens. He enjoyed the task.

"They seemed so defenseless, so simple, so pure," Lewis writes. "There was a subtle grace and dignity in every movement they made, at least through my eyes. But no one else saw them in that way. To my parents, brothers and sisters, the chickens were just about the lowest form of life on the farm -- stupid, smelly nuisances, awkward, comical birds good for nothing but laying eggs and providing meat for the table. Maybe it was that outcast status, the very fact that those chickens were so forsaken by everyone else, that drew me to them as well. I felt as if I had been trusted to care for God's chosen creatures."

Value inside

Just as Lewis' personality led him to see something of value in animals everyone else disdained, so our faith leads us to value every person around us, especially those whom society disdains.

Sirach states the guiding principle in our quest for faith (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18). "Yahweh," he reminds us, "is a God of justice; a God who knows no favorites."

"Justice" in Scripture almost always refers to a relationship between individuals. Though we normally use the word to connote "the quality of being equitable in action or judgment," our biblical authors zero in on why a "just" person is equitable. They're more concerned with the cause than with the result.

God is equitable with all because He has a relationship with all. God doesn't use us; He relates to us. Though Lewis' family treated all their chickens equally -- as producers of meat and eggs -- they never related to them as he did. Because of the ties he developed, he recognized his family's chickens as unique creatures of God, beings who eventually helped him understand himself and his place in life.

God relates to us in a parallel way, especially to those of us whom others judge worthless. "Though not unduly partial toward the weak," Sirach writes, "God hears the cry of the oppressed. God is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint." God hears the helpless because God forms a relationship with the helpless.

Lesson from Jesus

It's amazing what we discover about ourselves, God and others when we relate. That seems to be why, in the Gospel (Lk 18: 9-14), Jesus deliberately directs His parable "to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt."

The Pharisee, committed to keeping the smallest of Yahweh's 613 Torah laws, feels righteous (one with God) because he's observed all God's precepts. He disdains the tax collector, a person who doesn't measure up, someone so entangled in sin that he can never merit salvation. The parable depicts the Pharisee as someone who regards God only as the eternal pay master and simply uses the tax collector to make himself look good.

Jesus points out the obvious: No matter how righteous he feels, no matter how many laws he's observed, the Pharisee has a relationship neither with God nor with the publican. On the other hand, no matter how many laws he's broken, no matter how "unworthy" he feels, the tax collector at least relates to God as a person. "This one (the publican) went home from the temple justified," Jesus proclaims, "but the other did not."

How horrible if our last words are, "I kept all the laws!" instead of, "I kept the faith!" yet, through the centuries, many Christians probably have died with the former on their lips instead of the latter. It's so easy to forget that the faith of Jesus always put our relationships with others before laws.