Oct 27, 2019: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

The LORD is a God of justice,
 who knows no favorites.
 Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
 yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
 The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
 nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
 The one who serves God willingly is heard;
 his petition reaches the heavens.
 The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
 it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
 nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
 judges justly and affirms the right,
 and the Lord will not delay.

Today’s first reading, from the book of Sirach, is a discourse on the impartiality of God and the prayer of those in need.  As mentioned on the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the book of Sirach is canonical for Catholics but apocryphal for Protestants.

The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.

Sirach states that the justice of God is an established fact.  In this, he stands with a long tradition in Israel that professes this belief (Deuteronomy 32:4, Psalm 145:17, Isaiah 45:24, Jeremiah 23:6, to name a few).

He also states that God knows no favorites, neither the privileged nor the dispossessed.

Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed. He is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.

Sirach contends that God hears the cry of the oppressed, those who are the victims of wrongdoing (adikéō).  Actually, the verb suggests that God does more than hear, God obeys (eisakoúō).  The oppressed cry out, the orphan wails, the widow complains, and God yields to their requests.  These are all people who are defenseless in the society of that time; it is almost as if God is bound to respond to them.

So much of the Bible, especially the prophetic material, seems to espouse what has come to be known as “the preferential option for the poor.”  This position claims that God favors those who are less fortunate. Here Sirach is not challenging the prophets’ bias in favor of the poor; rather, he is indirectly showing that if there is any partiality, it is ours and not God’s.  He insists that God is concerned with justice, not favoritism; when God takes the side of the poor, it is for the sake of justice, not poverty.

He who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. 

Sirach is part of the Wisdom tradition of ancient Israel, which addresses some of the most fundamental questions of life; however, its limitations must be acknowledged. Along with several other Wisdom writings, it has been accused of favoring the worldview of those who are in power or who are in some way privileged.  Its insistence that upright living will be rewarded and sinfulness punished presumes there are no obstacles in the way, obstacles such as often held captive the lives of the less privileged.  Wisdom tradition seems to presume that all people really do have equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and find fulfillment, a conviction the disadvantaged know to be false.  For this reason, the Wisdom tradition has been accused of class bias.

The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.

According to covenant theology, we are all responsible for one another.  The well-off are obligated to address the needs of those who suffer misfortune.  This is a matter of justice, not charity.

Further, as a covenant partner, God is accountable to his chosen people, especially the most vulnerable people, especially when other covenant partners disregard their own responsibilities.  Sirach assures these forlorn people that their entreaties will not go unheeded.  Like the persistent widow in last week’s gospel reading, they will not cease praying until the goal is accomplished, until justice is re-established.

2nd Reading – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Beloved:
I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day, and not only to me,
but to all who have longed for his appearance.
At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf,
but everyone deserted me.
May it not be held against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. 
To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

The second reading this week is the closing remarks of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, which reveals that Paul is aware that his days are numbered, that his death is imminent.  Paul doesn’t resent it, but neither does he run toward it eagerly.  He faces it with the calm resignation that springs from deep faith.

Following the example of biblical heroes, including Moses and Jesus, Paul is giving a kind of farewell address near the end of his life.

Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation,

Paul uses moving imagery to characterize his life and impending death.  The first metaphor is taken from the context of the cult; specifically, the rite of pouring out wine as a kind of drink offering (see Numbers 15:5, 7, 10). This practice may have been introduced into the ritual as a substitute for blood libation.

Paul regards his death through martyrdom as an act of worship in which his blood will be poured out in sacrifice.

and the time of my departure is at hand.

The second metaphor is no less poignant.  Paul views his death as a departure, a kind of leave-taking (ánalýō, a compound derived from lýō, meaning “to loose”) associated with sailors weighing anchor or soldiers breaking camp.  Like them, Paul has completed a demanding tour of service and is now preparing to return home.

In neither metaphor is Paul in control: the cultic image suggests he is poured out by another, and soldiers follow orders about when to depart.

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

Paul’s letters are full of athletic imagery.  Here, he uses the image of a race to evaluate the course of his ministerial commitment. He has “kept the faith,” an idiomatic expression that means remaining loyal to one’s oath.  He has done what he could.

From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day,

Now Paul has only to wait for the conferral of the crown promised by God.  Paul reinterprets the tradition of placing a laurel wreath on the heads of victorious athletes and conquerors in war as an image of Christ’s eschatological manifestation.

and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.

He claims no special privilege.  This man, who is facing death at the hands of others, is looking forward to a time of communal fulfillment.

At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them!

Paul compares the trustworthiness of God with the unreliability of human companions.  It seems that everyone deserted him during one of his trials.

“Story has it that the apostle, after defending himself, was again sent upon the ministry of preaching and coming a second time to the same city met death by martyrdom under Nero. While he was being held in prison, he composed the second epistle to Timothy, at the same time indicating that his first defense had taken place and that martyrdom was at hand.” [Eusebius Pamphilus of Caesarea (between A.D. 300-325), History of the Church 2,22]

But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.

Paul is not resentful about being deserted by his companions, for God was there to strengthen him when all others fled.  He understands that everything he has accomplished has been more God’s work than his own.

He even maintains that the gospel benefitted from his adversity.  His imprisonment and trial provided him an opportunity to proclaim the good news to the people involved.  Because of this, he was able to spread the word even more broadly, despite the difficult circumstances.

And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

A biblical image (Psalm 22:21; Daniel 6:22).

The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. 

Paul is confident that just as God had previously rescued him from peril, so God would rescue him again.  He is not speaking of being freed from prison, but of being preserved from anything that might threaten his spiritual well-being and prevent him from being led safely into the kingdom of heaven.

To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul acknowledges that all glory belongs to God, and no one else.

Gospel – Luke 18:9-14

Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else. 
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. 
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This week’s gospel reading is the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, which in Luke’s gospel immediately follows last week’s parable about the persistent widow. The overall context is still an eschatological sermon.

Today’s story is so well-known that we risk missing the full force of it.  It gives an example of divine reversal that surprises hearers and obliges them to examine anew the values and standards by which they live.

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.

Luke gives us very clear information about the audience Jesus is addressing.

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 

Pharisees were religious leaders who, though they were relatively liberal in their interpretation of the Bible, were quite rigorous in their adherence to religious discipline (see Acts 26:5, Galatians 1:14).

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

He is a model of Pharisaic observance.  Everything about his demeanor bespeaks propriety.  He stands, according to the customary posture for prayer, and his conduct has been exemplary.  He is innocent of greed, dishonesty, and adultery.  His practices of piety exceed the requirements of the law.  He fasts twice a week, when fasting is only mandated for the Day of Atonement; he tithes on all of his possessions, not merely on his earnings, as the law states.  It would appear that the man is above reproach.  His description of himself is probably accurate, and his negative estimation of the tax collector may be accurate as well.

As correct as his self-assessment may be, this is more of a litany of self-congratulation than a prayer. He attributes his many virtues to his own merits, reminds God of all the good he is doing, and makes God out to be in debt to him. He doesn’t realize that his upstanding practices do not add up to righteousness, that is, to being in right relationship with God.  The Pharisee has the idea that he has earned God’s favor; he does not realize that righteousness is a gift rather than something earned.

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

Tax collectors were despised because they were part of the economic system put in place by the occupying Romans.  They were not paid by their employers, so they added fees to the taxes collected.  There was no standard scale governing this added charge, and tax collectors often exacted exorbitant amounts. They were basically seen as robbers of their own people for Rome. In addition, they were seen by the Jews as not only greedy, but idolatrous: the coins they collected had Caesar’s image on them and were thus considered graven images (because of Caesar’s claims to divinity).

This particular man does not deny his involvement in such offensive practices; in fact, his prayer for mercy seems to be an admission of his guilt. His demeanor is radically different than that of the Pharisee. He stands at a distance, suggesting that the other man either stood in front or in the midst of those in the Temple. He does not raise his eyes to heaven, suggesting that the Pharisee did.  He beats his breast (a sign of repentance and mourning) while the Pharisee’s arms were conspicuously raised high.  His repentant manner marks him as a sinner.

The word translated as “be merciful” (hiláskomai) literally means “cover over.”  From it comes the word hilastērion, the gold plate on top of the ark of the covenant believed to be the place from which God dispensed mercy.

I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; 

There is no question about which of these men has lived a righteous life and which has not.  The men have described themselves correctly.  However, Jesus’ evaluation turns the story upside down. He startles the audience by having the Pharisee the villian of the piece and the despised tax collector the hero.

for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee’s self-estimation is really a self-eulogy.  While he may be living an upright life, he takes credit for his virtue, and he claims superiority over others who may not be as compliant. He does not realize that he needs forgiveness for his pride and his judgmental attitude toward others.

The tax collector, on the other hand, acknowledges that justification comes from God.  He prayed that his sins be expiated, and his prayer was answered.  The Pharisee asked for nothing and received nothing.

The closing statement is the final judgment.  The men’s lives may have been the reverse of each other, but the judgment of Jesus exposes the real reversal. The self-righteous and judgmental people in Jesus’ audience are being taught that they, like the Pharisee, do not really pray and are not in right relationship with God, even though they think they are.

If, when we hear this parable, we say to ourselves, “Thank God I am not like that Pharisee,” then the parable is directed just as much at us as it is at Jesus’ original audience.

Connections and Themes

Our reflection last Sunday examined various aspects of prayer.  This week we reflect on the attitudes one brings to prayer rather than on the prayer itself.

Thank God I’m better than others.  It is very easy for religious people to fall into a kind of self-righteousness.  Their very enthusiasm and generosity can plant the seeds of religious arrogance.  They discover what commitment demands of them; they experience relative success in their endeavors to be faithful; they distance themselves from what they think might threaten their resolve,; and then they pass judgment on those who do not share their values of experience their success.  The growth of this kind of arrogance is often imperceptible because there is enough truth in every step along the way that it’s difficult to recognize when one is veering off track.

The fact is that some religious people are better than the rest of us. At issue is the reason why they might be better.  The arrogant Pharisee clearly believed he was better because of what he had done.  He had been observant, and he was proud of it.  The tax collector, on the other hand, was ashamed of what he had done.  More to the point, he knew what God was able to do in the face of his sinfulness, and so he asked for mercy.  Justification comes from God; it is not an equitable return for a job well done.  The tax collector knew this, the Pharisee did not.  The tax collector asked God for mercy, and he was granted his request.  The Pharisee asked for nothing of God, and so he received nothing.

There are various ways in which we show we are self-righteous, but basically they all show that we have forgotten that God is God and we are not.  This is the attitude Jesus condemns.  It presumes we are righteous through our own power, when it might be the case that we have not been thrown into a state of affairs that sorely tests the mettle of our virtue.  It is one thing to be non-violent when the circumstances of life are relatively tranquil and quite another when one is immersed in brutal situations.  Pregnancy means one thing to a woman who wants to bring a child into a stable and loving relationship and another to a frightened unmarried teenager.  The observance of cultural mores, as important as they may be, do not justify a person.  Only the goodness of God does.

Be merciful to me, a sinner. Jesus extols the humility of the one who admits being a sinner and can accept the implications of that admission.  The tax collector neither denied his culpability nor tried to excuse it.  He straightforwardly acknowledged his sin and stood humbly and openly before the holy God to whom he was accountable.  There is an unpretentious honesty in his manner.  He knows who and what he is, and he knows who and what God is.  He asks for mercy, knowing he goes not deserve it but also knowing there is every reason to believe the compassionate God will grant his request.  His prayer demonstrates contrition, humility, and confidence.  Unlike the Pharisee, who looks only to himself, the tax collector, though he does not even raise his eyes to heaven, looks only to God.  This is the attitude Jesus recommends.

This is also the kind of prayer described in the reading from Sirach.  It is those who can admit they are needy who turn to God in that need.  It is those who trust that God will be their strength in the face of their weaknesses who are strengthened.  The lowly, the poor, the oppressed, and the brokenhearted are not closer to God because they are lowly, poor, oppressed or brokenhearted but because in their dire straits they turn to God rather than to themselves.  God is merciful, and they experience this mercy when they pray for it; God is the source of their strength, and they are strong when they turn to God for strength.

An example to follow.  Paul’s own prayer demonstrates the attitudes that should be ours as we pray.  Like the Pharisee, he acknowledges his success.  He has competed well; he has finished the course; he has kept the faith.  Unlike the Pharisee, he acknowledges that God is the source of any good he has been able to accomplish.  The Lord stood by him and gave him strength.  If there is any glory, it belongs to God.  Paul’s confident prayer springs from a humble heart.

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