Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
St. Agnes Church, Cincinnati
October 28, 2001
(Based on Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18:9-14)
It would be an all too easy matter to reduce the parable in today's Gospel to a simple contrast between hypocrisy and humility, a matter of vice and virtue. That would make it just an example of 'generic wisdom', a commonplace of the cultures of the Middle East in Jesus' day.
Actually there's a side of ourselves that enjoys that approach. It takes the phony down a peg, and there's nothing we Americans like better than to see the big-shot meet the banana peel.
That approach makes the parable come off like one of those little snippets we read in The Reader's Digest when we're waiting in the dentist's office and there's nothing else to read but Field and Stream or Outdoorsman.
If we make the parable a matter of moral exhortation we miss the power of Jesus' message and how disturbing it was to his listeners (and might be for us).
So first we need to ask ourselves about the characters in the parable. How would Jesus' listeners react upon hearing the words 'Pharisee' and 'tax collector'?
The Pharisees. We've heard the Gospels for 2000 years, so we know these were the bad guys, enemies of Jesus. We've even adopted the notion in an English word: "pharisaical", which the dictionary defines as 'hypocritical', or 'performing external deeds without an corresponding inner spirit', or 'sanctimonious'.
That's not the understanding Jesus' listeners would be bringing to the story. We need to remind ourselves that the Pharisees were the upstanding leaders in the synagogue. They were laymen known for their serious study of the Law and for their religious performance. They took their religion seriously. I'm only being a bit facetious if I say that today they might be members of the parish council, looked up to by members of the community.
And tax collectors? They were not exactly your friendly IRS guys. Remember, the Jewish people were under foreign domination; they were an occupied people, to use a contemporary expression. And who did the taxes go to? The Roman conquerors, who exacted exorbitant taxes on the farmers and small business people.
The tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the oppressors of the people. The tax collector in the parable is in the synagogue, after all. They were like the 'collaborators' with the Nazis in Germany and France during World War II, preying on their own people and currying favor with the guys in charge.
So Jesus is not just telling a moralizing story, he's challenging people to re-think their social views. Who's really important, and what criteria to use in asking the question.
Just think about it. Jesus could have reversed the roles in the story. He could have made the Pharisee a humble man, because there were doubtless genuinely holy Pharisees. And he could have made the tax collector the self-righteous one, because doubtless not all tax collectors were modest and humble.
He didn't do that. He assigned the roles the way he did because he wanted to challenge the superficial norms and make people get beneath the surface, to ask deeper questions.
And the deeper question has to do, not with these two men's ordinary way of relating to other people. It's all about how they view their relationship to God. That's what the prayer question is concerned with.
For the Pharisee, prayer and the spiritual life is about making deals with God, bargaining. I'll do all these 'God things' --- say my prayers, and fast, and give alms --- and then you'll have to love me, God.
And remember, they really did do all the right things. They weren't phonies in the sense of not following through. It's just that it was all done as a way of obliging God, putting God on the Pharisee's level. Like the leper Naaman, whom we met a couple of weeks ago: 'hey, prophet, I'm cured, so here's all the goodies I brought to pay you'. In his mind it's a commercial transaction between equals.
The tax collector know who he is -- and more importantly, who God is.
He knows we have nothing to bring to God. God's love is pure gift. God loves us, not because of what we do but because God is God.
It's not easy for us to accept God's gift. It means acknowledging that we did nothing to deserve it. We have to receive it as gift.
Instead, we're forever trying to save ourselves, to prove ourselves before God.
Remember that well-know children's story, The Little Engine That Could. "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." We're like that -- and it really isn't a Christian story, you know. It suggests that all we have to do is work at it and we'll get there.
I think it's even harder for us to accept God's love as a gift because we're Americans. We're the 'can do' guys. Just give us the problem and we'll solve it.
And the reality is that God's promise is: I have a banquet set for you, let me serve you.
We have to come before God like the widow and the orphan that Sirach is talking about. Or like the alien in the land. Those were the three categories mentioned again and again by the prophets: the widows, the orphans and the aliens in the land. Why are they singled out? Because they were the people with no resources, nothing to fall back on. The widow has lost her husband, the orphan has lost the parents, the alien is in a strange place with no moorings.
We have to let go of our self-sufficiency and receive; we have to trust in God's promise. St. Jerome, the great biblical translator, tells of an experience he had in prayer. He said to God, "What can I give you that you don't already have?" And he hears God answer, "Bring me your emptiness and I will fill it." We will only know the richness of God's gift when we can acknowledge our poverty and hunger.
Does that mean that we don't have to strive to do the deeds of love, to care for our neighbor? No, we absolutely must do that. But the Christian view of our deeds is that we are able to do deeds of love and care because God has loved us first. We know we are loved, and that impels us to spread love. We don't strive to serve God and neighbor in order to win God's love, we do it because we have been and are loved. The best foundation for a solid spirituality is thanksgiving, gratitude. That's why we join one another in liturgy, to bless and thank and praise God for fidelity already shown to us again and again.
Our choir occasionally sings a hymn with two lines that sum it all up pretty well:
Thank you, for waking me up this morning
For letting me see one more dawning.
It's all gift. "What have I that I have not received?"
When we come to the altar today, let's just bring our poverty and emptiness and let the Lord fill us with divine life.