Go ahead, try to make yourself happy.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – October 27, 2019

St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34:2-3, 17-19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8. 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

The parable in our Gospel today contrasts two people: a pharisee and a tax collector. And it is easy to hear this parable and think that it’s about beating your breast and telling God how horrible you are, and how many sins you commit. It ends with that famous line, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14). And so often we think of humility as beating ourselves into the ground, reminding ourselves of all the sins we commit. But that’s not the point. That’s really not the point!

The point is that all of us, each and every single one of us, is caught in the condition of sin, and no matter what we think, we are unable of giving ourselves the happiness and fulfillment we seek. And, more importantly, the point is that living your life thinking you are an exception to this rule, thinking, “No, I’m a good person,” or, “I’m really happy right now, I’m living my best life,” is only preventing us from receiving the happiness and fulfillment only God can give.

St. John Vianney spent hours each day hearing confessions. And he was asked about what he learned from his many years of listening to confessions. And all he said was, “People are much sadder than they seem.” That’s all he said: “People are much sadder than they seem.” Why? Because people are caught in the condition of sin. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. Yes, we all commit “sins,” we all do bad things. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about SIN, the condition of sin, our inability to give ourselves what will make us happy; we cannot produce our own fulfillment. Sin constantly keeps us turned in on ourselves. That’s what St. John Vianney meant. We can be happy, we can have good days and bad days, we can have a great life! But sin, the condition of sin, is that nagging feeling that there could be so much more—and our sadness at not being able to get it. Sin cripples us. Our sins are just symptoms of this problem. Our sins are all the ways we try to make ourselves happy, all the ways we seek fulfillment in all the wrong ways. That’s what St. John Vianney meant. In their sins, people continued to admit to him all the ways they tried to ignore the condition of sin, and failed miserably in their search for fulfillment and happiness. “People are much sadder than they seem.”

At some point, we decide to go at it alone, and this always disappoints.

I flew to Chicago last week to visit some of my classmates from seminary, and as I was on the plane, this young, very well dressed man, probably about thirty years old, sat down next to me. And I was just wearing normal clothes, and if you know me I’m not real chatty on airplanes—but he sat down next to me and just immediately started talking. He was very excited, just incredibly happy! You know, when something really great happens and you just want to tell people. Well, lucky for me, he sat down next to me. He is a news broadcaster, and he had just received a big promotion, going to Chicago. And so I listened for a little bit. And then he asked me, “What do you do?” And I said, “I’m a Catholic priest.” And, as usual, people really don’t know what to say to that. But he was a professional, works on camera, so he recovered quickly. And he asked, “Are you happy?” And I said, “Yeah.” And a little confused he said, “Huh. Why?” And so quickly I turned it around on him. I asked, “Well, are you happy?” And he said, “Well, yeah!” And I asked, “Why?” And he said, “I have a beautiful girlfriend, I have a nice house, a nice car. I just got a great new job, and a huge raise.” And so I asked again, “So you’re happy and fulfilled?” And then, he just got really quiet, and tears started to well-up in his eyes, and then for the rest of the flight he told me about how miserable he was. He told me about all the ways that, even though he had a woman, money, fame—even though he had all of this, he felt like his life had no meaning, that he felt miserable, and he couldn’t explain it.

This man is the perfect example of the modern day Pharisee from the parable. The Pharisee is described as not greedy, not dishonest, and not adulterous; as one who fasts and is generous with his money. Sounds pretty great, right? (Ladies, sounds like a pretty decent guy, right? Generous, honest, faithful.) But what’s his problem? Why doesn’t Jesus hold him up as an example? Pride. The pharisee is totally disconnected from reality. Sure, he has some good qualities, but he is completely disconnected from reality. Like I mentioned a few weeks ago, humility isn’t about thinking you are a horrible person, no. “Humility is truth, living the truth of who we are, living reality for what it is.” And “a lack of humility, or pride, is this disconnect from reality, trying to live our own version of reality, trying to make our lives whatever we want instead of what they really are.”

That man I met on the plane was full of pride. Not because he was boasting about his job and his money, no. He was full of pride because his life was completely disconnected from reality. Specifically, he was disconnected from the reality of sin. And that’s what he finally realized on the plane that day. He had the girlfriend, he had a great job, fame, money, house, car—but he realized that all of this was centered on himself, that it didn’t give him the happiness and fulfillment he thought. On the plane, he came face to face with his own sadness, his own condition of sin.

Why is the tax collector in the parable the example for us? He is a person that is greedy, and dishonest. Why does Jesus hold him up as the example for us? Because the tax collector is aware that he is a sinner, that he bears the condition of sin. He is aware that even as he continues to commit sins, even as he continues to look for happiness in all the wrong places, even then the reckless love of God continues to overwhelm him. But even more than that, he is aware that the happiness and fulfillment he seeks cannot come from himself; they can only be given to him.

And that’s where the words of Pope Saint John Paul II—whose feast we celebrated this week—become so important to recall. When we finally recognize the condition of sin, when we are humble enough to admit that, then everything else begins to fall into place. John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.” Yeah, we may be stuck in this condition of sin, but it is then that God can love us. “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.” So often we get caught up in the idea that we need to prove ourselves worthy of God, prove how holy and good we are. But this is backwards. It is the Father who first loved us; in spite of our unworthiness, He loved us. And he sent his Son for this very purpose. We hear in every mass, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” We can only pray that prayer, that prayer only makes sense, if we first admit to ourselves: “I cannot give myself the happiness and fulfillment I seek. I cannot do it alone. Lord, I need you. O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

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