30th SUNDAY-C- OCTOBER 27, 2019
Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8. 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14
by Jude Siciliano, OP
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In the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer, the Pharisee is often depicted in a negative light – he’s the bad guy in the story. How vain and arrogant he is! But he wouldn’t be seen as the bad guy to those listening to Jesus. The tax collector would be the villain in the story to them. His job meant he collected taxes for the Romans. When Jesus mentions his presence in the parable his hearers would have instinctively thought, "Traitor – lowest of the low!" What’s more, if there were any doubt about the quality of their lives, both men stated their moral status quite clearly, as we can hear in their prayers.
The Pharisee is a good person who would have been admired by his contemporaries. He was so "holy" that he did more than was obliged by religious law. Deuteronomy required that a tithe be paid on the fruits of the flock and the harvest. Note that the Pharisee tithes his "whole income." He was going above and beyond what he was obliged to do.
So, we can presume that his description of his moral life is accurate: he is, "not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous." He leads a better life than "even this tax collector." His problem isn’t that he is not a good and observant person. People observing the Pharisee leave the Temple after prayer that day would have agreed with his self assessment. He was to be admired for his exemplary behavior; while the tax collector would be despised for his morally bankrupt life. The lines are clearly drawn – case closed.
Not so fast! Remember Jesus is telling a parable and parables never go in the "proper" direction–the one we anticipate and consider inevitable. Trying to use mere human logic and reckoning never really works with the parables. The parables don’t conform to conventual human wisdom. Today’s parable is a good example, that when we enter into the world of the parable we are in a whole new reality. It’s called "the kingdom of God."
No one could ever call the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim "logical." Thank God! What chance would we have if logic and pure human justice were applied to our lives? Instead, today’s parable shows us once again that God’s ways are illogical by human reckoning. God’s justice is about grace, and grace is not measured out using balancing scales like the kind depicted in the hands of our famous legal statute of Blindfolded Justice. Today’s parable is about God’s justice – it’s given to the truly sorrowful and missed by those who think they have to earn it.
If what the Pharisee said about himself was true, what’s the problem? Well, he is looking in the wrong direction. He is praying with his focus on his own life. Notice for example, how many times he refers to himself–"I". God seems no more than an outside observer to the man’s prayer and his list of accomplishments.
Some people think our prayer can change God’s mind. Actually, true prayer will change us. But there was no chance that the Pharisee’s prayer would have any transformative effect on him. He seems to think that his extra good life has earned him the reward of salvation; that God owes him a reward for his religious good works. People seeing the Pharisee leave the Temple that day would have seen a very satisfied person who had performed his religious duties.
But can you recognize the heresy of works in his focus on his own achievements? Where is the gift of God in the man’s life? The Pharisee is so focused on his good works that he fails to see God’s activity in his life. The source of a person’s goodness doesn’t begin in the person, it comes from God. God is the gift giver and our goodness reflects God’s goodness in us.
Luke tells us that Jesus address this parable, "to those who were convinced of their own righteousness…." It’s a cautionary tale about a tendency we religious people and religious institutions can have: the conviction that we alone possess the truth and know the way people should behave. The self-righteous Pharisee condemns anyone who does not meet his standards. The "righteous" draw a conclusion about the sinner and leave no room for dialogue and open exchange.
The tax collector focuses not on who he is, and not what meritorious things he has done; but on who he is not and what he has failed to do. In fact, unlike the Pharisee, he quickly turns his gaze away from himself and towards God. He is in need of God’s blessing and cannot achieve it on his own. He is totally reliant on God and surrenders himself into God’s hands. When he left the Temple that day he would look the same to those observing him. But Jesus marks the difference they would not be able to see in him – he "went home justified." In biblical language that means he was delivered from his sin. How did that happen? What did the tax collector do to "merit" this forgiveness? Nothing. He was a sinner who turned completely to God for forgiveness and God’s mercy responded.
The person who is in touch with his or her humanity will know that our relationship with God and others is a gift from our good God. But, if we are in touch with our humanity, we also know how fragile and sometimes fickle we can be and our potential to sin. So, the tax collector’s prayer today is our prayer as well, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." We have placed our trust in our God who has created us and provided us with ample reason to give praise for all the beauty and goodness within and around us. We also know we can trust the same God to forgive us when we have turned away and made ourselves the primary focus of our lives–like the Pharisee.
John Shea recalls the revelatory experience Thomas Merton, spiritual writer, Trappist monk, had standing on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. Merton was overwhelmed by his love for all the people around him and how he was not separated from them, but one with them. He said, "Thank God, thank God that I am like other [people], that I am only a man among others." Then, in further wonder, Merton exults in praise that, "God… is glorified in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race!" ("The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year C: the Relentless Widow," Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006, page 299.) So, while we "humble self" as Jesus recommends, we remember with praise that we are not only united with each other in our humanity, but also with God who, in the great act of humility, became one of us in Jesus Christ.
Ben Sira ran an academy for youth two centuries before Christ. His wise teachings on worldly affairs and on the traditions of the Jewish faith were collected by his grandson for future generations of dispersed Jews, who struggled to practice their faith surrounded by nonbelievers. Ben Sira reminded his privileged students that their status and the value of their gifts at the altar did not automatically win a hearing from God. Rather, as we hear today in our first reading, God hears the prayers of the least in society.
Today’s reading from Sirach is reminiscent of last week’s parable of the widow’s insistent demand for justice from the unjust judge. Sirach reminds us that if God plays any favorites it is towards the oppressed, "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds, it does not rest till it reaches its goal." Those Sirach describes as "the lowly," exemplified by the widows and orphans, are overlooked by those with worldly power. Thus, the poor have only God to turn to. This reliance on God in prayer is not found only in the lowest, but can be a characteristic of each of us who are willing to humbly place our lives in God’s hands. Sirach is also reminding his privileged students that if God hears the cries of the poor, then they should do the same. Jesus’ arrival, less than two centuries after Sirach, would be a concrete sign of God’s compassionate ear for the lowest.
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