Failure is an Option

Homily for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

If you’ve had the chance to grow up with older siblings, you know, as I do, that you can learn a lot from them. Some things they teach you directly, like when they show you how to play a game or help you with your homework. Some things you learn from them indirectly, as you watch them succeed or make mistakes. Some days you want to be exactly like them, some days the exact opposite of them.

Until I was a freshman in high school, I wanted to be exactly like my older brother. Growing up, my older brother was smart, athletic, and driven. From the perspective of an admiring younger brother, he seemed to succeed in everything he did and to have it all together. I felt the need to keep up with him and be involved in the same things he was a part of. If he was going to be good in school, then I was going to be good in school; if he was going to be an Eagle Scout, then I was going to be an Eagle Scout; if he was going to play football, then I was going to play football.

As it turns out, this last thing—football—proved to be the one thing that I couldn’t match him in. I found this out my freshman year of high school when I decided to join the football team, as my brother had done before me, and discovered that I couldn’t stand it. I disliked it so much, in fact, that I did the one thing that you’re not supposed to do: I quit the team. And for the next several months after that, I felt like a total failure. Every time I passed my former teammates in the hall, I looked down in shame. I would sometime even take a different stairwell when I saw them coming, going out of my way to avoid what I felt were looks of disappointment and judgment.

The saving grace of this whole experience, however, was that it cured me once and for all of my mad attempt to be like my brother in every possible way. From that point on, I decided to be myself, even though I often disliked the person I was. Because as bad as it felt to be myself, it was better than trying to be like someone else and completely failing at it. And that was the hardest part for me personally: the fact that I had failed, because I wasn’t used to failing; I was used to succeeding. The hardest part was the humiliation of being a failure—a failure in my own eyes, the eyes of my brother, and the eyes of my peers.

In our gospel today, the tax collector comes before God in a similar state of humiliation. In the eyes of the Pharisee, who looks at him from a distance and with disdain, the tax collector is a failure. He is a cheat and a fraud, and he works for the much-hated Romans. The tax collector is also a failure in his own eyes; He knows that he is a sinner, and a public one at that. He will not even raise his eyes to heaven as he makes his prayer to God. And yet, he is the one who receives saving grace. He is the one who goes home justified. For “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds,” as our first reading said.

Like myself as a freshman, or like the tax collector in our gospel, sometimes it’s not until we are humbled that the Lord can lift us up. Sometimes it’s not until we fail publicly that we stop pretending that we’re perfect or trying to be someone that we’re not. Sometimes it’s not until our ship is going down that we’re finally willing to raise the white flag and surrender. In a world that puts so much pressure on us having everything together, and showing no weakness, sometimes the Lord has to do something dramatic to break through the walls of our pride and, like the walls of Jericho, to bring them tumbling down.

Growing up, I used to claim as my own, and try to live by, that famous motto from the Apollo 13 mission, “Failure is not an option.” But the truth is, failure is an option, and sometimes it’s the best and only option that the Lord has to humble us. The alternative is to be like the Pharisee and try to pretend that we have no weaknesses, or at least to be unwilling to acknowledge those weaknesses before God and others. The challenge is to acknowledge the failure, to acknowledge the weakness—to humble ourselves before the Lord, and to allow the Lord to lift us up.

The question is: What is that for us? What is something that we’ve failed at recently? And has the Lord allowed us to fail at it because He is trying to teach us something? Perhaps this was the only way for the Lord to get through to us, to let us fail. I know that’s been true for me in my life, and I’m sure it’s been true in yours.

Something I’d encourage all of us to do this week is to spend some time praying with something we recently failed at. Maybe this will involve asking God for mercy and forgiveness, as it did with the tax collector. Maybe it will involve asking for wisdom and understanding, to see what God was trying to teach us from that experience, like it did my freshman year of high school. Whatever that failure is, let us bring it to the Lord. Let us not deny it or keep it hidden, but bring it to the Light, trusting that the Lord desires to forgive us, heal us, and lift us up. “[F]or whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Amen.