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JUSTIFIED Homily for Thursday of the 28th Week in Ordinary Time, 14 October 2021, Luke 11:47-54

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I wonder how his fellow Jews reacted when Paul spoke about the idea of JUSTIFICATION in our first reading today. They must have felt extremely offended by his words, the way the Scribes and Pharisees were with Jesus in the Gospel. In our Gospel, Luke says they began to act with hostility towards him.

There were only two kinds of people in this world, as far as Paul was concerned. And here he is speaking like the typical Pharisee that he used to be. There are the “Chosen People” on the one hand, and the “Gentiles”, on the other hand. Gentiles—that’s how they referred generically to “the rest of humanity” who were not Jewish. (I find it funny that we inherited that term from the Jews and we now also refer to the rest of humanity as Gentiles, especially when talking about MISSION— “MISSIO AD GENTES” which is Latin for “Mission to the Gentiles”, as if we were not Gentiles ourselves.)

Paul is actually criticizing an attitude that he himself represented before his conversion, meaning, while he was still a Pharisee. The mindset that Yahweh was God only of the “Chosen People”, Israel. In our first reading today, he asks, “Does God belong only to Jews? Does he not belong to Gentiles too?” And then he declares, “God is one…” and insists that this one God will justify both the Jews and the Gentiles!

This was unthinkable for his Jewish audience who presupposed that their being a “chosen people” meant that only they would be saved. Why? Because God had given them the Law. And it was through their observance of the law they were supposed to achieve the righteousness that would save them from sin.

Paul challenges this. He says, “All have sinned!” Meaning, both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were no better. How often had they been reminded by the prophets of their failure to keep the commandments. And so he says, now, with Jesus, salvation is offered to both Jews and Gentiles. He says, “They are justified freely by his grace through redemption in Christ Jesus.”

This reminds me of that passage in Deuteronomy where the writer reminds Israel why they were chosen by Yahweh. He says in Deut. 7:7, “It was not because you are greater than all other peoples that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you; for you are really the least of all peoples. It was rather because THE LORD LOVED YOU…” In short, he is telling them that they were chosen not because they deserved it. God chose them because he pitied them when they were being oppressed as slaves.

I have often heard of parents talking this way when one of their children resents the special attention that another sibling might be getting. They accuse their parents of favoritism. I remember one mother struggling to explain to her eldest who was sulking, “I love you both, you and your brother. Yes, I know your father and I have tended to give your brother more time and attention than you. But that’s not because we love you less. It is because your brother has a disability and he needs a little more attention. Like, we never needed to tutor you in you homeworks because you could do them all very well by yourself. In fact, I think you turned out to be a very responsible child because you yourself looked after your brother and gave him all the care and attention that he needs. And we’re very proud of you for that.”

Paul is disappointed that his fellow Jews have convinced themselves that only they would be saved. They had forgotten what they had been blessed and chosen for—only to be a blessing to the rest of humanity.

Something goes terribly wrong when people begin to think of love as a reward for their efforts or for some good things that they have done. They tend to get programmed by a sense of merit, they never develop a sense of grace. They are the kind who would say, “I don’t owe anyone anything. Everything that I have is a product of hard work.”

Sometimes we need to hear from God what the prince said to Cinderella in that stage musical, “Do I love you because you are beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” Yes, as simple as that. Paul says, “What saves or justifies us is not our righteousness or our faithful adherence to the law. We are not saved because we worked for it. We are saved only by GRACE, by God’s generous, unconditional and merciful love. In reality, we’re no better than others; we are all sinners.

That is what we heard in today’s responsorial psalm from Psalm 130: “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, who can stand?” Meaning, if we are to be judged according to our merits, who will be found deserving? Perhaps nobody. Even Mary the Mother of our Savior says, “For He has looked upon his servant IN HER LOWLINESS.” That comes close to Pope Francis’ motto, WRETCHED BUT CHOSEN.

This is a good reminder for Christians who boast about being “saved”, those who think they are assured of heaven because they fulfill their religious obligations, while all others who don’t will surely go to hell. This attitude is actually one of the pet peeves of Pope Francis.

Those who think of the Eucharist as an exclusive meal for the righteous must listen carefully to the words of consecration where Jesus says his blood is poured out FOR YOU AND FOR MANY SO THAT SINS MAY BE FORGIVEN. He is not offering his life only for the salvation of the righteous but for the redemption of sinners.

Paul as it were is telling us, “It’s not what you do for God that saves you; it is rather what you allow God to do for you.” It is by God’s unconditional love, his grace, and his readiness to empty himself totally, to suffer and die for us even while we are sinners, that we are justified.

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