Why should St. Peter let you in?

Photography © by Andy Coan

Each year, at one of our country’s leading Catholic universities, a professor does a survey with his incoming class of students.  He puts to them this question: “if you were to die tonight and appear at the pearly gates, what would be your entry ticket?

Nine out of ten bet their good character and behavior will gain them admission.

This is exactly the strategy used by the Pharisee in the parable that we find in this Sunday’s gospel (Luke 18:9-14) about the Pharisee and the publican.

As we listen to this story today, the Pharisee strikes us as conceited.  His real problem, though, is that he, like the students noted above, is out of touch with reality.  And, by the way, being out of touch with reality is the definition of insanity.

Reality is that we are creatures and God is the creator.  Heaven is the experience of sharing intimately in God’s inner life, participating in his immortality and friendship.   We have less of a claim to intimate friendship with God than a flea has to intimate friendship with us.  As the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, there is an infinite qualitative distance between us and God.

In fact, standing on our own merits, we have absolutely no claim whatsoever on God.  A claim is based on justice.  Justice is about receiving our due and paying what we owe.  We receive our very being and all we need to sustain that being from God.  Therefore we owe him everything – perfect love, honor, obedience, and worship.  Showing up at church from time to time, tossing a few bucks in the basket, and trying to be basically decent people doesn’t quite cover the debt.

In fact, considering what we all owe, the Pharisee’s merits don’t appear all that more impressive than the tax-collector’s.

That’s why God sent Jesus.  Through his act of perfect humility, obedience and love on the cross, He paid the debt that the entire race owed to God.  That’s justice.  And then he credited it to our account.  That’s mercy.  Another name for mercy is grace.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar, studied St. Paul’s letters and came to a startling conclusion: “for by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8).  Wait a minute.  Isn’t this Protestant doctrine?  No.  In the words of Peter Kreeft, the Protestant Reformation began when a Catholic monk rediscovered a Catholic doctrine in a Catholic book.

Talking to most Catholics in Luther’s day, you’d never know this was Catholic doctrine.   And the college survey noted above illustrates that the same is regrettably true today.  Most appear to be under the illusion of the Pharisee that they deserve salvation based on their good deeds.

The Catholic Church’s teaching has always been clear — it’s all grace!  Whatever natural blessings we enjoy — health, job, family, education – are gifts.  Did we have to labor at all to attain what we have?  Usually.  But we were created out of nothing.  Our very existence and ability to labor is a gift.  If we enjoy a personal, intimate relationship with God as our Father and Jesus as our brother, that’s all gift as well.  Do we have to labor spiritually to do God’s will and walk in the path of good works that God has marked out for us? (Eph 2:10).  Of course.  But the very ability to know God’s will and love as God loves is pure grace.

The publican was under no illusions: he knew that he deserved nothing but judgment.  So he asked for mercy.  This is the sane thing to do.  The Pharisee, under the illusion that his works made him righteous, didn’t think he needed grace, so didn’t ask.  That’s insane.

Humility is not only sane, it is liberating.  It enables us to stop thinking about what we’ve done and what we deserve and focus instead on what He’s done and how much He deserves.  Humility may begin with beating one’s breast and looking at the ground.  After all, the term “humility” comes from the word “humus” or earth.  But mature humility looks exuberantly up to heaven.  Not with the arrogance of the Pharisee, mind you, but with joyful thanksgiving of those who are thrilled to know that they are loved.


Editors Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) — Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalms 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23; Second Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14. This series of reflections on the coming Sunday Readings usually appears each Wednesday.

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.


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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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2 Comments

  1. thank you, this is enlightening…in this Year of the Faith we Catholics should learn more how beautiful our faith is & we must share it in every chance we have..may our Lord continue to give us unending grace.

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