Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.
-2 Cor. 12:7-10
Well, it’s too bad that we don’t hear all of this twelfth chapter of Second Corinthians (or “Two Corinthians” as our president says!) or all of the preceding eleventh chapter; just this brief passage that comes almost at the end of this great exposé of St. Paul’s exploits, graces, and challenges. He is very frank indeed, and might not have passed muster with some if he had been subjected to the requirements of the canonization process today!
But he gives the rest of us great hope, even if the rigorists might have found him a little too much for them. And that might be the reason for the Church’s wisdom in just giving us the peroration of his self-defense. After all, few of us can boast (and that is his naughty word for it!) of being persecuted in every way for the sake of the Savior, or having been the recipients of super-celestial mystical graces (how bold of him to tell us that!), but every one of us can identify with the words that follow his boasting, which we have heard today at holy Mass.
To be sure, each one of us, young or old, male or female, clerical or lay, of whatever race or class or condition, can honestly say that we are troubled by the urgings of our fallen nature, by the trials of earthly life. Surely those trials are the greatest for which we cannot vindicate ourselves or find an excuse—other than our weakness. What are these trials? Mostly they are on the level of our emotions or feelings, what are classically called in theology our passions. We suffer from sadness, depression even; we suffer from aching desire for things or persons whose possession we cannot rightly enjoy at the moment; we suffer from the shame of acting on our desires when we should not have—lust, drunkenness, gluttony, laziness, aggressiveness, resentments, gossip and rash judgments—and all their effects on our soul and body.
Could it really be that God intends that we not be completely freed from these things? Are we to make an excuse for ourselves, saying that God could deliver us if he wanted to? Hardly. “A humble and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” says the royal psalmist David, and this was a prayer he made after his calculated, deliberate adultery and murder! And yet this psalm, the fiftieth, (or fifty-first depending on the Bible you use), is used again and again in the Church to express sentiments of perfect contrition. And Jesus was not ashamed to be called after the murderous adulterer “the Son of David.” Indeed the scriptures tell us that David was a “man after God’s heart.”
God does intend to free us from our shameful weaknesses, but only in order to give us humble hearts. There is no point to being chaste and temperate and calm and industrious and even-tempered, if we are not meek and humble of heart. Jesus prefers the worst sinner in the world, who is humble and conscious of his weakness and need for pardon, to someone who apparently has no faults to reproach at all. Who, after all, was the first to enter paradise with the glorious Savior? It was Dismas, as we call him, the Good Thief, before all the just of the Old Covenant, even John the Baptist and St. Joseph, neither of whom, by tradition, had any personal sins!
“The Son of Man came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
“There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just men who have no need of repentance.”
“The healthy do not need a physician, the sick do.”
It is Satan’s job to be the accuser of sinners (for that is what his name means), but Jesus and his holy ones are our defenders. The more sins a person has committed, the more he needs a defender and advocate, and that is why Paul could say that he trusted in the power of Christ so much that he could boast of his weaknesses. It is as if the criminal looked out at his accusers and said, “Yes, I’m guilty, but my defender is also my judge, so I am going to get off!” This is outrageous from a demonic perspective, but it the only way any of us sinners will ever be saved. Trust in your own strength and you will join the devils in hell.
This is not the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil; it is the way of Divine Mercy. No matter how dogged our defects may be, no matter how hard we have struggled to contain our weaknesses, it is a simple truth that Jesus, our Savior, the Son of David and of Mary and of God, wants us to turn to him whenever and as soon as we fall, so that we can receive his pardon and grow in humility and confidence.
This is a message that is “too good to be true.” But there it is. The greatest saints are the ones who had the greatest compassion for sinners, and the Savior is the king of all saints. Let us imitate him then and not refuse ourselves or anyone else the compassion he came to bestow. Only in this way can we safely overcome sin.
Would you want to be perfect without being humble and grateful? Your sins give you the opportunity to be perfected by repentance and humility and gratitude. There is no excuse for your sins; indeed that is the point, because if there were, forgiveness would be simply just a transaction. There is mercy for your sins, and that is the only thing on which we can rely if we hope to be saved now or in the end.
St. Paul, boaster and weak one, pray for us!