30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
The first and third readings tell us that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and the humble person. In the second reading, Paul reflects on how the Lord has been his defender in tough times.
FIRST READING: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
While “God has no favorites,” he does have a special place in his heart for the prayer of the poor and the oppressed. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” The “lowly” is one who knows his need for God (e.g., the tax collector in today’s Gospel) in contrast to one who is arrogant and egotistical (the Pharisee in today’s Gospel). In a male-dominated society such as Israel, widows and orphans are especially vulnerable, and God is keenly responsive to them.
SECOND READING: 2Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
In this reading, Paul is aware that his days on earth are numbered. He does not resent it, but neither does he run toward it eagerly. He faces it with calm resignation that springs from deep faith. He uses athletic imagery to speak of his fidelity to God. He has “fought the good fight,” he has “finished the race,” he has “kept the faith.” Like Jesus, in his time of need, all his friends abandon him. But God does not fail him. God stands by his side offering him strength.
GOSPEL: Luke 18:9-14
Today’s parable (only found in Luke) features two men in prayer. The Pharisee belongs to a group within Judaism who pride themselves on their fidelity to the Law. This particular Pharisee has several good qualities: he prays, fasts twice a week tithes, and is honest. (What Pastor wouldn’t like him?) In contrast, the tax collector is a “bad egg.” He is a participant in a very corrupt system that cheats his own people. Politically, he is a traitor, and religiously, he is unclean. Plain and simple, the guy is detestable on all counts. He is the kind of unsavory character that respectable people will not have in their company. There is no doubt which of these men live a righteous life.
So the Pharisee and the tax collector go off to pray in the Temple. When they are finished praying, Jesus says that God is pleased with the tax collector’s prayer but frowns on the Pharisee’s prayer. How come?
First, the Pharisee’s thanking God that he is not like everyone else is not a genuine prayer but rather a commendation of his own goodness. He replaces praise of God with self-congratulation.
Second, he elevates himself by putting down the other person, an absolute no-no for Jesus’ disciples. And for that, he gets a D-. In judging and condemning the other, the Pharisee has judged and condemned himself.
Third, he has no sense of his own sinfulness or need before God. He pretty much gives himself all the credit for his own goodness. Even though he may be living a righteous life, he is misguided in his approach to God and in his way of praying.
Fourth, his prayer separates him from sinful humanity. He thanks God that he is not like the rest of humanity. True prayer brings us closer not only to God but also to wounded humanity.
What is good about the tax collector’s prayer? Why does he get an A+ for his approach to God?
First, his humility, as expressed in his prayer, makes him pleasing to God. “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” Sirach says: “The prayer of the lowly (the humble) person pierces the clouds.”
Second, he is deeply aware of his sinfulness before God. “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He goes home justified because of his humble approach to God and his sense of his need for God.
If we want to go home justified, we should live like the Pharisee (honest and faithful, fasts and tithes generously), and pray like the tax collector.
How do we keep a true balance between having a healthy sense of self and, at the same time, being ever aware that before God, we are sinners?