You have gotta feel bad for Tom Brady. Those are words I never imagined saying, or to survive saying in the New York Tri-state area. A few years ago, when I was still a rabid New York Yankees fan, the sight of Tom Brady would usually cause me to say a lot of uncharitable things – think a lot of uncharitable things. Some of you sports fans out there are already thinking “Father Jim, that doesn’t make sense – Tom Brady plays football, not baseball.” Yes – you are correct. As much as I enjoy watching a good football game, I was never a huge fan. But as a former – rabid New York Yankees fan – my irrationality would spill over that meant not only did I loathe the Boston Red Sox but by geographical relation, the New England Patriots as well. Tom Brady for most of his football career has been the poster child for the Patriots. Ergo during my irrational phases, Tom Brady was never someone I had positive thoughts or feelings towards.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 23, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
Whether you’re a football fan or not, it’s hard to avoid knowing about Tom Brady who seems to be in the news quite a bit, especially the last few weeks. First, there has been story after story dissecting whether he and his wife are getting a divorce over his decision to return to playing football after officially announcing he was retiring at the end of last season. Then there’s been the doldrums that his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are experiencing with at best an average season so far – with most of the blame being directed at Brady. Then this past week, while appearing on a sports podcast as he was being interviewed at some point he made a comparison to being on a football team as being on a military deployment. Within minutes the memes were flying with soldiers on deployment in horrific conditions around the world taking pictures of themselves and asking for an explanation of how they’re being separated from their families and putting their lives on the line is in any way comparable to the hardest days that a professional football player experiences.
Noting how badly that was received, Brady did apologize later in the week. It was this last experience that made me really stop and pause and made me realize that I felt bad for Tom Brady – which was a new experience. During my irrational fandom days, and have tremendous love and respect for what the men and women in the military do – I would’ve probably been sharing some of those memes myself and piling in on him.
But when I saw the story and read the reaction and then his apology, it hit me a bit differently. Having been a co-host and a regular guest on an international-radio show for over 10 years, I can attest that when you’re in the studio and just talking with the others in the room, you can get loose and casual in your speaking. When you’re in that environment, especially if you know the people in the studio you get comfortable very easily and can make inside jokes with one another, you can poke fun at one another, and you aren’t as precise or have well-thought-out answers to things because you know people there know you. They are accepting what you’re saying, where you’re coming from- they are in a place where they’re reading the best of intentions. Having had some experiences where a listener took words I said out of context – or words others had said and attributed them to me, then having that going “viral” with calls for people to write the Archbishop about me, where something that I thought was a completely forgettable exchange – (so much so I had to relisten to check myself what was it I said?) I found myself feeling bad for Tom Brady – because I could empathize with this experience. I could put myself in his shoes and know how that felt.
But why it matters, why I’m even bringing this up, is because it gets to the heart of today’s Gospel. What is Jesus getting at in this Gospel passage? In short, the disaster that the sin of pride wreaks in the lives of people and the antidote to it is genuine humility.
It’s actually a humorous parable. Jesus has this Pharisee speaking this “prayer” – where the Lord God is only mentioned to get His attention to call out making sure God’s listening. But then the Pharisee goes about praising not the Lord God but himself. It’s almost like the Pharisee wants the Lord God to join in his praising of himself and all that he’s doing “I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I pay tithes on my whole income.” Just to make sure those who might utter similar prayers don’t miss the irony, don’t miss the joke – Jesus uses as an example the tax collector who offers one brief sentence “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” and Jesus explains the tax collector goes home justified – not the pharisee – which was shocking to His initial listeners. One commentator made the point that to make the comparison between the two men more obvious to us in our day and era, instead of a Pharisee and tax collector, our modern equivalents would be a Theologian and a drug dealer. Just imagining these extremes of individuals it is hard to imagine the one being held up as an example for anything over the other guy.
Where so many go off the rails with this parable is making assessments and conclusions though, that isn’t there. Jesus isn’t dismissing the importance of fasting or tithing. Nor is He ignoring the train wreck of a life that the tax collector is living. Sometimes because we have heard these parables and have some familiarity with the bulk of the New Testament can have the mistaken notion that Jesus is always siding with prostitutes, and tax collectors and constantly upending those who are religious. And that is not accurate.
Jesus comes to save all humanity. Jesus loves the tax collector and the Pharisee and knows how BOTH of them need to change. The tax collector who has been basically conspiring with the Roman empire against his fellow Jews, profiting off this evil system and aligning himself with forces of darkness – he’s in spiritual danger himself – his soul is in danger. In this moment, Jesus is rejoicing in the hope that still exists as that man comes before God and is just honest and vulnerable and bares his heart and soul as he says “O God be merciful to me a sinner.” There are no excuses, he’s not looking for any loopholes or any justification. He knows his life is a mess and he confesses it as he comes before God, which the Lord in His love, His tenderness, His desire for the tax collector to be reconciled with Him and with His people that’s what God rejoices over. God is desperate to offer His forgiveness. But that doesn’t mean the tax collector can walk away from that temple and return to his ways. Jesus loves sinners – pursues them, welcomes them. But the sinner has to change in order for that love to be internalized, actualized, and realized.
Which is what the Pharisees forget. Even if his conscience is squeaky clean as he examined it… Did he forget times in the past when that wasn’t the case? Did he forget the mistakes he has made? Did he forget when he was feeling unforgivable and was the beneficiary of mercy – where love met him in his misery, in his need (which is the definition of mercy, by the way) ? Did he forget all the blessings that surrounded his life – may be family and friends; maybe material possessions that contributed to him living a life where he wasn’t feeling the need to make such a disastrous and horrible decision like becoming a tax collector? Did he forget that he was a sinner and all the things that he was doing that were good, right, and just – like being in the temple, like fasting and praying – all of that was being upended by his pride? Again Jesus loves sinners – pursues them, welcomes them, but the Pharisee has to remember that left to his own devices that is all he is, a sinner. It is God -when we accept those realities about ourselves, respond to His grace and repent – turn away from sin and turn towards Him, it is God who makes us new creations. The Pharisee has to change in order for this love to be internalized, actualized, and realized…
So neither of these guys has got it all together – have it all figured out. They still need to change. Not just they – we need to change.
We live in some really blasphemous times. The list of profanities that have been not just deemed acceptable by the world but now are being redefined as things that are virtuous and worth defending seems to grow by the day. It’s easy for any one of us to become discouraged, disillusioned, self-righteous, or any combination of those things in response.
This is what makes stories like Tom Brady worth noting. The vulture-like reactions, amplified by social media where each and every one of us has an opportunity to join in the feeding frenzy picking, dissecting, and mocking the personal trials, struggles, setbacks, and failures of someone else – before we move on and go to the next celebrity, the next politician, the next media figure, all of that creates an environment where people not only feel its totally acceptable form of either news or entertainment or whatever it is we want to categorize it as – but that it is also something acceptable to do in our own lives, with people in our neighborhoods, workplaces, classes, and families. Where we consume these stories, share them and judge them to help anesthetize ourselves from looking internally. From doing some real examination of my heart and soul, looking at what’s weighing down on my conscience (or should be) that I need to go to confession for. And this vicious cycle continues where we just see and feel things are getting more vulgar all around us.
How do we break that cycle? How do we push back against these profanities, these blasphemies, this evil? It has to begin where we focus on the one area we have the most influence on – the one area that Jesus holds us most responsible for – ourselves. I remember that was a realization that was hard to accept in the face of some of the horrific Church scandals that have come to light in recent years. I was angry – I was upset – I was embarrassed hearing and seeing all these evil things coming to light, coming to public view, and spent many a day in my prayer telling Jesus just how angry, just how upset, just how embarrassed I was – and a couple of suggestions on what He could do to fix this mess.
But ultimately I felt the Lord leading me to get back to the basics. If I was angry, upset, and embarrassed – that’s good. That should be our reaction to sin, to evil. If I want true healing and change to happen – that’s good too. But I can only advocate for that, I can only understand that when I start with what this Gospel passage is reminding us of.
Which are two things. First not to allow our gaze to be misdirected towards everyone else and what it is they are or are not doing. The devil loves it when we begin to play those comparison games and start to somehow justify my sins as “not as bad as…” and my righteousness proved by “I’m better than…” And secondly to humbly focus on my sinfulness, my weakness, and my brokenness and entrust that to the Lord to help me pursue, or even to desire to pursue holiness.
It’s striking that when we read the lives of the greatest of saints, they never forgot the reality that they were sinners in need of God’s mercy – and their lives were seen through that prism. St. Augustine, for example, is a Father from the ancient Church, and centuries later his writings as a philosopher and theologian are considered essential reading. When we hear his name and just hear some of his quotes, the titles of some of his works, you can imagine the guy was this holy man, thinking holy things, doing holy things and that inspired these eloquent reflections on things of God. But it’s actually the opposite. I stumbled upon this prayer of his in another book I’m reading where he says: I present myself before thy Holy Face O my Savior, laden with my sins… although I am conscious of the just punishment of my sins, I do not, on that account, cease to commit fresh ones every day…. when thou chastises me, I make the best promises in the world; as soon as you lift me up, I forget all I promised thee…I make to thee O God, a sincere confession of my sins… unless thou forgives, thou may justly destroy us…Grant me, my Savior, what I beg of thee, although I don’t deserve it.”
I know when I first read that it was a bit shocking and there was an impulse to think that’s too extreme or play armchair psychologist and diagnose him with something that seems more acceptable than imagining a man pursuing holiness who would become a beloved Saint having that type of self-reflection. Because then we can dismiss him and not take those words and his example to heart. And if that were all he wrote, if that was all he believed you might have a point. But that wasn’t it by a long shot. His confidence in faith was born from reflecting on how God had saved him, over and over again – and his utter reliance on His mercy continued to sustain him, most especially as he ministered to the people of his day and age and amazingly still does.
For us, in the end, we come back to the fact that Jesus is calling each of us to sainthood. That doesn’t mean comparing ourselves to someone like St. Augustine or someone like Tom Brady- or anyone for that matter. It’s about our recognizing our need for a Savior, rejoicing that we have one in Jesus Him, and following Him.