23 October. Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1st Reading: Sirach 35:15-22
The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds
The Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek
as she cries out against the one who causes them to fall?
The one whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted,
and his prayer will reach to the clouds.
The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and it will not rest until it reaches its goal;
it will not desist until the Most High responds
and does justice for the righteous and executes judgment.
Indeed, the Lord will not delay,
2nd Reading: 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Having fought the good fight, he will receive the crown of glory
As for me, I am already being poured out as a sacrifice and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
Contrasting approaches to God, in the Temple
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Approaches to God
(from José Antonio Pagola)
St Luke tells how Jesus directs the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector to some who think themselves just before God, and despise everyone else. The two protagonists who go up to the temple to pray represent two contradictory and irreconcilable religious attitudes. But, what is the correct posture, the one suitable before God? This is the root question.
The Pharisee is a scrupulous observer of the Law and a faithful practitioner of his religion. He prays standing up and with his head raised, for hfeels at home in the temple. His prayer sounds like praise and thanksgiving to God, yet he doesn’t give thanks for God’s greatness, goodness or mercy, but for what’s good and great in himself.
Right away we feel there’s something wrong about this prayer. Instead of praying to God, this man is looking at himself, telling his own story, how good he has been. He needs to feel himself right with God and present himself superior to everyone else. In spite of all his learning, this man doesn’t understand what prayer really is. He doesn’t recognize the mysterious greatness of God or confess his own smallness. It’s crazy to seek God in order to list our good works before God and put everyone else down. Behind his apparent piety is hidden an «atheistic» . This man doesn’t need God, asks nothing of God, for he’s full of himself.
The Tax-collector’s prayer is very different. He knows that his office of collecting taxes is hated and despised; so that his presence in the temple is looked down upon by all. He knows that he’s a sinner and doesn’t excuse himself.. His beating of breast and the few words he murmurs say it all: «God, be merciful to me, a sinner». This man knows that he has nothing to offer God, but much to receive from God: forgiveness and mercy. There’s authenticity in his prayer. This man is a sinner, but is on the path of the truth.
The Pharisee hasn’t met up with God. This tax-collector, on the other hand, right away finds the correct posture before God: the attitude of one who has nothing and needs everything. He doesn’t even take the time to confess his faults in detail. He knows himself as a sinner. From that conscience wells up his prayer: «Be merciful to me, a sinner».
The two of them go up to the temple to pray, but each one carries in his heart a particular image of God and how to relate to God. The Pharisee is caught up in a legalistic religion: for him what’s important is to be right before God and be more righteous than anyone else. The tax-collector, on the other hand, opens himself to the God of Love that Jesus preaches: he has learned to live based on forgiveness, without boasting of anything and without condemning anyone.”
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn
Opposites Attract: In human relationships we notice how two unlike personalities often complement each other, like positive and negative sides of a magnetic field. One may show a natural flair for leadership and the other seems happy to follow that lead, in many areas. Among ourselves, initiatives will be shared back and forth of course, neither partner being fully passive with respect to the other; but in prayer there is only one proper relationship: God is the powerful giver and we the dependent receivers.
This receptivity on our side, this dependency towards our Creator and Father, is in fact our way to peace. As Paul so clearly saw: “when I am weak, then am I strong; I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (2 Cor. 12:10; Phil. 4:13.) The apostles attributed all their abilities and successes (cures, conversions) to the power of God, working through them. Only when we are humble before God can great things be done in us, as the girl of Nazareth, our Blessed Lady declares, “He casts the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly.”
Why Humility? Some hardly regard humility as a virtue at all. Is it really a good thing to feel our need? Or does it harm our ego and our self-confidence? Perhaps the word “humble” is too often misused, applied without much thought to dwellings that are shoddy or neglected, to efforts that are half-hearted failures and to characters who adopt a pose of false modesty in order to win approval. For Christians, humillity is simply recognizing our innermost truth, with no pretences and no poses. Every individual in the presence of God our Creator comes to recognize himself/herself as imperfect and indeed sinful; and with this comes a sense of our need for grace and mercy. In this situation, there is nothing we can offer, to distract God’s attention from our guilt. Our true resource is a humble spirit; only this incentive draws down on us divine mercy and the grace we need for good living. The tax-collector felt this humble honesty, as he stood before God. “Lord, be merciful,” he said; and went home with his sins forgiven and with relief in his heart.
Virtue Spoilt By Pride: But we wonder, what’s wrong with this Pharisee, if anything? In many ways he leads an admirable life, fully observant within the Jewish tradition. In his own acount of himself, he kept all the rules, from fasting and almsgiving to honesty and purity. There was real effort there, a search for holiness, within his tradition. But it all caused him to forget that he remained weak and sinful, like other people. His sense of his own holiness dominates his prayer. He goes so far as to despise others, while giving thanks for his own good qualities. And by this attitude, he spoils the effect of his other virtues. Pride is like a worm, destroying the apple at its core. Indeed, it turns him from speaking to God, to talking about himself. His prayer dies.
Collective Pharisaism? Can we apply this warning to our personal attitude, towards God and towards others? Do we Catholics sometimes take a stance of collective pride, towards those who don’t belong to our Church. Of course, we rightly regard ours as the fullest expression of Christ’s Church and maintain that Catholicism defends moral standards, a vigorous liturgical life and a visible world-wide unity among believers. And we should be thankful for these things and want to share them with all who are searching for the truth. But isn’t there also a niggling temptation to look down on other churches, to disparage their values or under-rate the sincerity of their members? We must guard against any narrow, self-righteous Catholicism and keep up that respect for other Christian communities that was promoted by our last Church Council. Leave God to judge the merits of other persons and their faiths. It is enough for us to trust in his mercy, recognise our own imperfections and place our hope in the merits of Crist, applied to us through his holy sacrifice.
The Great Achievers: There is a tradition in rural Ireland for men to congregate at the back of the church during Sunday Mass. In the recent past, it was customary for them to take off their caps, place them on the floor and kneel on them on one knee. Generations of peevish parish priests thundered at them from the altar, in an effort to eradicate the custom. But this was one battle the parish priests of Ireland lost. I don’t know when it originated. It has been suggested, with some plausibility, that it derived from the penal times when there were no churches. The Mass-houses and cabin-chapels were small primitive buildings, providing shelter only for the priest and a handful of the faithful. The men remained outside, exposed to the elements, leaving to women and children whatever shelter was available.
Pharisee and Tax Collector
If we could take this story to heart, we would be helped enormously in learning how to come before God in prayer.
Story: A newly-commissioned colonel had just moved into his office, when a private soldier entered with a toolbox. To impress the private, the colonel said “be with you in a moment, soldier! I just got a call as you were knocking.” Picking up the phone, the colonel said “General, it’s you! How can I help you?” A dramatic pause followed. Then the colonel said “No problem. I’ll phone Washington and speak to the President about it.” Putting down the phone, the colonel said to the private “Now, what can I do for you?” The private shuffled his feet and said sheepishly, “Oh, just a little thing, sir. They sent me to hook up your phone’!
My generation were given a detailed set of regulations and we were told if we remained faithful to those and not deviate in any way we would so merit heaven. The focus of much religion while I was growing up was to keep people from going to hell. Spirituality, on the other hand, is what frees those who have already been in some kind of hell on earth. Ask anybody in recovery from addictions, compulsions, etc. Religion is about externals, it’s our actions and it’s about control. Spirituality, on the other hand, is what God does, it is internal and it’s about surrender.
But the way to holiness is to discover that I’m a bigger sinner than I ever thought I was! The closer I come to God, the more obvious the sin is. It is a long journey from the Pharisee at the front to the tax-collector at the back. It is a journey of repentance and of facing up to the truth. It is a journey that Life will provide if I have the courage and honesty to find it. If I still think that I should be still up at the front with the Pharisee, then my life will be riddled with guilt and I will never find peace.
The tax-collector knew his place in the larger scheme of things. God is the Creator, we are God’s creatures. I am in need, and Jesus is my Saviour. Unlike the Pharisee, I have no right to praise myself above anyone else. All judgement is to be left to God. One can look at the most hardened criminal and say “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” My background or advantages are no reason to boast .. for I could have been born to any parents, in any country, at any time. I did not select my sexuality, the colour of my skin, or my religious beliefs. With total conviction, I can stand before God and pray “Oh, God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Let’s check our own attitude before God. It is like going into the garden on a sunny day, lying back in a deckchair to develope a suntan. The only thing one does is to make oneself available; the sun does all the rest. Let’s not over-emphasise the importance of our contribution when we try to pray. We are all in the same situation of need, when standing before God!