“I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”
More often than not, it is near impossible to find the connection between the second reading and the Gospel for Sunday’s liturgy. The reason for this is that, more often than not, there’s not one, because the liturgy of the word is designed that way. The first reading and the Gospel always have some connection: The Lord fulfilling an Old Testament prophesy, for example. The responsorial psalm, often echoes a sentiment from the first reading, to reinforce its message. But the second reading usually serves a different purpose altogether. It gives us moral instruction pertinent to living our Christian faith in the world today, and the encouragement we need to follow Christ full heartedly.
This week is one of those rare occasions when the second reading ties in quite nicely with the first reading and the Gospel, while simultaneously fulfilling its primary role of teaching us how to “Put on the New Man in Christ.”
Does Paul not sound something like the Pharisee, who is full of himself, when he repeatedly refers to himself, saying, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I … have kept the faith”? If we examine more closely and read the verse just before this one, “I am already being poured out like a libation,” he comes across more like the repentant tax collector, who empties his heart to God in his prayer.
St Paul illustrates, by his example, how he allowed himself to be humbled, he lowered himself, he turned to the Lord at the time of his greatest difficulty, and he was rewarded — first and foremost by the gift of having a robust faith.
This is a lesson we needed to hear coinciding with today’s Gospel.
By using a parable, Jesus starkly contrasts an two attitudes: One which repulses us with its arrogance — “Oh God! I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity!” The other which attracts us because of its sincere humility — “Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus assures us that the latter, not the former of the two, will return home justified. And in the second reading, the liturgy gives us added assurance of this.
It helps us to see that the repentant sinner’s prayer is not just about self-abasement. He isn’t navel gazing or simply throwing a pity party for himself; if he were, he would be more like the self-concerned Pharisee. Rather, he turns toward God, recognizing God’s strength as the antidote for his own weakness. And it is in that moment of acknowledging weakness before God that he becomes strong. He receives the strength to finish the race.
Thus in reflecting on today’s Gospel, let’s not overlook the important message of hope that concludes the reading: “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.”