Our first lesson, from the prophet Joel, contains God’s response to his people Israel as they endure crisis of droughts and locust plagues. God assures them that he will restore his people; there will be abundant rain again, and a future of wellbeing for Israel will come. This promise of restoration alludes to the covenantal relationship between God and his people, meaning that faithfulness and patience will be asked of them. But look at what God also promises: “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” There will be hope and plans for the future, shared by young and old. This is the greatest and most life-giving promise of all, and one that God extends to us, as well.
Paul concludes his second letter to Timothy in our second reading. Although he reflects from prison on his impending death, Paul is not morbid or hopeless. He sees his life as having been well spent as an offering to God, when he writes, “I am already being poured out as a libation.” His assessment of his life is triumphant: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He has proclaimed the message he was sent to proclaim. Paul writes this to encourage Timothy to do the same, and we can draw courage from his words, too.
The gospel reading from Luke is a companion parable to last week’s parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. This week we have the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Although this may look like a lesson about religious practice, it is also another teaching about who is “justified” in the end. The Pharisee in the Temple turns his prayer into a competition in which he is bound to be the winner; he tells God about all his good points and his superiority to other people, especially to the tax collector, whom he judges and denounces. The tax collector, meanwhile, offers up his poor self to the great heart of merciful God, saying only, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus concludes his teaching by telling us that the tax collector is the one justified in God’s sight. This is a powerful statement of what Paul called “justification by faith.” Our “rightness” does not matter to God; how good we are, and how upstanding we are in the sight of others does not matter to God. What matters to God is our acceptance of and complete reliance on his love and mercy.
It is very easy in this season of posturing, self-promotion, and graceless speech to fall into the ways of thinking and speaking that we hear and read daily through the media and social contacts. This is spiritually toxic. I will leave you with some wise and ancient words from St. Isaac the Syrian (7th century): “Do not pass through the streets of the hot-tempered and quarrelsome, lest your heart be filled with anger, and the darkness of delusion dominate your soul.” Be a child of the light.