There but for the grace of God go I

Readings: Sir. 35.12-18; Ps. 34; 2 Tim. 4.6-18; Lk. 18.9-14

In this morning's gospel, the Pharisee was proud of his moral standing. He says, "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity - greedy, dishonest, adulterous. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on my income." Meanwhile, the local tax collector stood off at a distance, would not even raise his eyes to heaven, beat his breast and said, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." Jesus said of this pair, "The tax collector went home justified, but not the Pharisee, for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and who humbles himself/herself will the exalted."

"There but for the grace of God go I." When I was up at Niagara Falls last week, I met a man who said I might use his story. This man is about my age, a college-educated professional man. His son-in-law is college-educated and a professional man, with two young children. The son-in-law recently began experiencing some medical disease which affected the frontal lobes of his brain. The frontal lobes affect social skills. Due to sickness, the son-in-law's social skills have reverted to those of a teenager. This young professional man now comes up in public to his father-in-law, and gives him a kick in the rear-end. Everybody is aghast at this action. The son-in-law comes up behind his male friends and former co-workers, and gives them a smack on the back of the head. People who understand, say just give me a light tap to say hello, not a smack. Those who don't understand, become angry. This young husband and father goes up to women at social gatherings, and pats their butts. Now, the family has to fear not just misunderstandings, but also lawsuits. The family and this young man are suffering greatly, and the process of deterioration is expected to take him back to childhood behaviors. One of my responses is to remember the words of St. Paul: "There but for the grace of God, go I." May I suggest, "There but for the grace of God, go you and me."

This past week, I had to spend an entire morning in Frederick County Court. You will remember that St. Joseph Parish and other neighboring parishes had about a hundred brass vases stolen from our cemeteries; we lost thirty vases. I attended the court hearing this past week. It was a sad three hours for me. Our parish case was called after about 15 prior cases. Cases before the parish case included people who had been charged with drunk driving, domestic fights, public prostitution, and worse. These cases were presented and discussed in graphic terms, blow by blow, by the prosecutor and defenders in order to explain the matter to the judge. I was embarrassed for all these people: for the defendants, for the court officials, and for all of us in the audience waiting for our cases to be called. Many times, I hid my head behind some book that I had brought with me, and prayed for all those involved. What public humiliation for those charged with these crimes. And what public shame for those who had to press these charges. And shame for all the families. And I thought, "There but for the grace of God go I."

I've learned over the years that each person is a mysterious complexus of chemicals, neurons, synapses, and free will; plus external factors like culture, history, economics, and social standing. The Native American adage is most apt: "don't judge somebody until you have walked a day in their moccasins."

We have all been created in God's image; we are all brothers and sisters, with God as our one Father. Whether we are Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, or atheists; we are universal brothers and sisters before God. Remember that Truth matters, and we have the responsibility to pursue truth, and to praise God. Nonetheless, we stand equal before God in our being.

We have all been redeemed by Jesus Christ; we are all sinners who have benefited from Jesus' cross, death, and resurrection. Every person on the face of the earth has been saved. It is our responsibility to turn away from sin and turn back to God.

The Christian principle is "Judge the sin, but not the sinner." We must make judgments about truth and behavior. It would be an abdication of our responsibilities as parent, teachers, and priests, if we just accepted, "Everything goes." Note that the father-in-law of the young husband and father tells the young man that his adolescent behavior is not acceptable; the father-in-law does that because truth matters, and he wants to channel his son-in-law's behavior as positively as possible. When I spent last Thursday in court, the judge was quite clear and direct that the behavior of fighting, drinking and driving, stealing, and worse, was not acceptable. Circumstances may have lessened the blame and the degree of freedom of acting, but the individual remains responsible for his/her actions, as the judge assigned jail time to almost all of those persons who came before him.

Judge behaviors, yes, like fasting, tithing, praying; lying, cheating, stealing; but remember that God alone has created, has saved, and will judge our souls. Be honest and humble in our judgments. Be quick to pray for people, not to condemn them. After 62 years of living, and 35 years of serving as a priest who has been invited into people's souls, I honestly and humbly say, "There but for the grace of God go I."

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