I grew up with the idea that God was a God of black check marks and gold stars. If I did what I was supposed to then I got a gold star, but if I messed up then a black check mark was added to my tally. I was pretty certain that I had far more black marks than gold stars. In my mind I made lots more mistakes than I did anything else. In time, I became convinced that I wasn’t on God’s “good side”.
But in today’s reading God tells us that He “knows no favorites” (Sirach 35) and He won’t ignore or delay in answering our prayers! Sometimes, when life feels really difficult, it’s hard to feel like God is there. And sometimes it really feels like He isn’t answering us. But in scripture God promises that He won’t ever leave us or forsake us (Matthew 25), and in today’s Psalm (Psalm 34) He promises that He is CLOSE to us, most especially when we are brokenhearted.
In my life it often seems that God is most quiet when I am struggling the most…and I know that feels unfair (at least it does to me). More than anything though, it reminds me of how much I need God in my life. A few years ago I was at work and one of the nurses I worked with asked me how it was that, in the midst of lots of things going wrong in my life, nothing seemed to really “get me”? I answered that it was because I knew that there was a God bigger than me. It didn’t mean that things turned out perfectly, it just meant that I didn’t have to go through those hard things alone. And that makes all the difference. I cling to those words of Psalm 34: “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit He saves”. We’ve all been crushed at some time, and it brings hope to my heart that there is a great God who will save me and be near me. Paul reminds us to keep the faith and to stay strong, knowing that there is a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4) awaiting us at the end! We might struggle, we might get a little bit broken….but God is faithfully standing near to keep us safe and rescue us from evil!
Do we recognize when evil is near? The Gospel reading speaks of the evil of pride that kept the Pharisee from finding grace and forgiveness. He missed the whole point of coming to God in prayer. The tax collector (in that day most tax collectors were cheats who stole from the people when they collected taxes) did not even raise his eyes to heaven, but simply asked God for mercy. And Jesus said that he – the lowly, broken, messy, sinful tax collector – was the one who would be exalted. It’s good to be reminded that we are all in need of grace…none of us any more or less than another. God’s mercy is always present…but we must see our need for it in order to receive it! C.S. Lewis said it beautifully when he said: “When a man is getting better he understands more & more clearly the evil that is still left in him”. May we always be continuing the race…keeping the faith and standing in confidence that our God is near.