15 December 2010
What We Deserve
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I love traveling, and especially if it’s a trip covering a long distance, I much prefer to fly than to drive. I get very excited taking off, but I have to admit that each time we prepare for landing, I get a little nervous. It certainly doesn’t help if it’s raining, or windy, or snowy. What I’ve come to notice is that the most important thing is the approach to the runway. If that’s going well, then there’s not as much to worry about.
Really, in our Gospel and second reading today, we see how approach makes all the difference in the world. In the Gospel, the Pharisee approaches salvation as if it’s a shoe-in. He does the right stuff, so he should go to heaven, right? His money doesn’t possess him, he tells the truth, he doesn’t sleep around, and he’s generous with his money, so there’s nothing to worry about!
Except that he’s so convinced that if he just does the right things, then God will have to give him eternal salvation. After all, he’s earned it! This is in stark contrast with the Tax Collector, who approaches salvation as if it is a gift, a gift that he does not deserve, a gift that, perhaps, he has already lost. He realizes that he is engaged in a business which is supporting a foreign, idolatrous power. And, to make his own living, he must tell people that they owe more than they really do.
It’s very easy for us to fall in the Pharisee’s mindset, because it’s reaffirmed for us in almost all we do. When we go to the iTunes store we pay $1.29 and we get a song. When we go to class we turn in all our work, do our best, and we deserve an A, or a B at the lowest. We are a culture of entitlement. The world owes me. And we can act the same way with God. We can figure that we deserve salvation because we haven’t done anything majorly wrong, and even if we have, we’ve gone to confession. So God owes us heaven.
If we approach God this way, then not only are we like the Pharisee, but we are also falling into the sin of Pelagianism. Pelagianism was a heresy, named after a monk called Pelagius, which asserted that we earn our own salvation. God merely grants us what we have worked so hard to achieve. It’s such a dangerous heresy because it’s very close to the truth, and it sounds like how life works in every other way. But the reality is that we can never do anything to earn our salvation. No avoidance of sins or good works can ever make God save us. Rather, God offers us salvation as an unearned gift. We have to respond to that gift, but it is, in the end, still a gift that we cannot and do not earn.
So then, how can St. Paul be so certain of his own salvation? He says, “I have competed well; 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.” Isn’t St. Paul assuming that he earned his salvation? He was, after all, a Pharisee before he converted.
No, St. Paul is not a Pelagian. Rather, he knows how he has responded to God’s gift of salvation, a gift which he, in other letters, he admits he does not deserve, and he has acted in a way that shows that he has accepted that gift of salvation which God freely gives to those who believe in Him. The Lord does not want us to suffer for all eternity in hell. But He also respects our freedom, a freedom that can return love for the limitless love we have been shown by God in the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, or a freedom which can reject God’s love by sins of greed, dishonesty, sexual immorality, and lack of stewardship of the gifts God has given to us.
And so we must have the right approach. We ought to use our freedom to gain the true freedom which comes from following God rather than the license of doing anything, which only enslaves us to our passions and sin and Satan. We must respond to God’s gift of love and salvation in all aspects of our life: how we vote; how we raise our families; what charities we support; how we witness to Christ to our friends and family; how we express love to others. And then, for the times when we have failed to respond well to God’s love, we should take the approach of the tax collector, and ask for mercy from the All-Merciful God, who will forgive us for our sins that we have committed out of weakness. And then, if we are truly contrite, and seek to receive God’s gift of salvation by the way we act, then we can have a sure and certain hope that if we have competed well, and finished the race, and kept the faith, that a crown of righteousness will also await us who have longed for the second coming of Christ at the end of time. To that same Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever. Amen.