Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 24, 2004
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Sirach 35:12-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14)
You know, we've all heard the parable in today's Gospel so many times that it would be easy to reduce it to a simple moral story about pride and humility. Be wary of exalting yourself, and humble yourself instead. It's not a bad message. A little more humility would not hurt our world at all.
Or we might go to another level of the story and see it as a caution against what we might call 'comparative spirituality.' That involves finding our own justification by comparison to others who don't measure up. Looking down on them. "I may not be perfect but I'm a lot better then those guys." Throughout the Gospels Jesus would never let his listeners, whether they were his disciples or Pilate, off the hook that way. He said, "I don't want to hear what others think; what do you have to say for yourself?"
And that's worth reflecting on also. It's so easy for us to find ways to avoid our personal responsibility by measuring ourselves against the performance of others.
But if we stop there, at these two good morals we run the risk of diminishing the force of the Gospel and making it a piece of Hallmark piety. There are bigger things at stake here.
In order to appreciate what is really going on we need to try and hear what Jesus' audience heard when he addressed them with this story. They heard something very different from what we hear.
Jesus wasn't giving them a generic story. He doesn't say, just, 'subject A and subject B' went into the temple to pray. He said a Pharisee and a tax collector. And that's an altogether different matter.
What did they hear when Jesus spoke of a Pharisee? We think of a phony, a hypocrite; someone who talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk. We even have an adjective: 'pharisaical.' But that's because the word has been transformed by 2000 years of Christian preaching. When Jesus' audience hard 'Pharisee' they thought of an upstanding religious figure in the community; someone who was exemplary in fulfilling the commands of the Law. The Pharisees were a lay movement, intent on reforming Judaism. A Pharisee was someone who took religion very seriously; we might say "a pillar of the church."
And a tax collector? They didn't just think of your friendly IRS agent. The tax collector was an agent of the oppressive Roman regime that had overcome the Jewish people and held them in bondage. The one who collected taxes for the enemy was someone to be scorned, a Jews who had sold out his own people.
So when the crowd heard Jesus tell of two men like that coming before God in prayer, you can be sure they knew how the story was going to turn out. Who would be justified, accepted by the Lord? Well, someone might say that was --- pardon the expression --- a slam dunk. It was obvious that the Pharisee was on God's side. Wasn't it?
What's going on here is not merely a simple moral tale. Jesus is turning their whole idea of religion on its head. He was telling them they had it all wrong. Elsewhere the Scriptures tell us that God's ways are not our ways; God's thoughts are not our thoughts. It's not just about right conduct, it's about conversion to a whole different religious world-view. Jesus' simple story is shocking to them. It's revolutionary.
Do we really know what holiness consists in? Are we all that sure?
In order to try to grasp just how disturbing Jesus was, I've tried to imagine how he might tell the story today. It might come out like this:
A certain bishop entered the Temple. He made his way to the front and with his hands raised he said, "Oh God, I am so grateful that you have not made me like one of those Catholic politicians who say they are privately against abortion but don't vote their convictions. I know they are not fit to receive the life of Your Son at the table of Communion." And meanwhile an ordinary voter slipped into the back of the Temple and knelt down to say, "Lord, I can't figure out who to vote for. It's so hard for me to weigh this decision because there are negatives on both sides. But I have to act. So I place my decision in Your hands. I can't be sure; my vote may turn out wrong. If it does I ask you to have mercy on me for I am a sinner."
It's been said that if you and I get to heaven there are three surprises waiting for us. The first is to find ourselves there! Then we will be surprised who else is there along with us; people we would never have seen as holy. And the third surprise will be to find out who isn't there. . . .
The word of God always comes to us where we are, right now. And it comes to us, not as individuals in isolation but as a people.
So where are we?
We are a people deeply divided. And not only that. I a heard a commentator on the radio yesterday say we are not merely divided. There's nothing wrong with being divided, having positions in competition with one another and wrestling together about difficult choices. That's what democracy is all about. No, beyond being divided we are polarized. That's something else, far more serious. When we get polarized we are locked in camps. People who hold another position are not simply opponents, they are enemies. We don't just disagree, we are unable even to listen to one another, to hear the value the other person stands for.
We are locked in isolation. For some it is impossible to imagine how people can't see through the obvious hypocrisy and phony piety of the religious right. For others it's impossible to imagine how someone could possibly vote for a candidate whom they sincerely believe supports murder of the innocent.
We seem to be incapable of putting ourselves in the shoes of our neighbor. And the most tragic aspect of it all is both of us are tempted to think that God is on our side.
Would that we could all make our own the prayer of Abraham Lincoln. When one of his supporters said, "Aren't you glad that God is on the side of the Union," Lincoln said "I don't know that God is on our side. My prayer is only that we may be found on God's side."
Maybe the thing that will help us is to listen to Paul in his second letter to Timothy. He's at the end of his life. He has been put into prison for his proclamation of the Gospel. And as he looks back on his life, what does he celebrate? He doesn't say "I'm glad I was always right; I'm glad I fulfilled the letter of the Law." He says, "It was the Lord who snatched me from the lion's jaw." It is only the faithfulness of God that brought him through. He can look to his death with confidence because he has experienced God's unwavering fidelity and is assured that it will be with him till the end.
As we receive the Lord today, let's pray for our country, that we may be healed of our self-righteousness and arrogance. That the Lord will gift us with the power and the courage to reach down beneath our differences to find a deeper common ground that will enable us not only to listen but to really hear our brother or sister. Only then can we hope that we may find ourselves on God's side.