30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1. Sirach 35: 12-14
Reading II. 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
Gospel. Luke 18: 9-14 (Pharisee and the Publican).
Last week we heard the parable about the widow whose prayers were answered because of her persistence. Today, we also deal with the question of whose prayers will be answered. In today's first reading from the Book of Sirach we are told that God "hears the cry of the oppressed." "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal." How unlike our own society where the largest donors are the ones who get the most attention from our leaders.
In today's passage from St. Luke, our Lord addresses a parable "to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else." It is the famous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. Let's look at the Pharisee's prayer first.
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.
I'm not a big fan of video games but I know that some games require the player to get past a number of obstacles of increasing difficulty before reaching the treasure or final goal. However, at the very end there is often a obstacle or monster that can't be passed or killed. Just when you're almost home, you're zapped or killed and you have to start all over again.
These games are very much like life itself. For just like the Pharisee we can spend a lifetime overcoming obstacles. Look how he got past obstacles like greed, dishonesty, and adultery. He's even disciplined himself by self sacrifice. He fasts and gives a large part of his wealth to support the temple. Still, he is faced with the greatest obstacle, the unpassable monster, Pride. He is not an evil man. He is a good man. But his success in overcoming all these little hurdles has made him proud or self-righteous.
It's really sad when we see such pride in our leaders, whether they be politicians, businessmen, educators, entertainers, or athletes. It's even sadder when we see it in our religious leaders who should know better. However, pride is not just limited to the high and mighty. How many ordinary families have been torn apart by a word or gesture that hurt someone's feelings. Once the wound has been inflicted and the backs have stiffened, pride sets in and prevents any reconciliation.
How often do we see ordinary Christians, for example, acting as if they were better than anyone else? Isn't it easy for us churchgoers to say, like the Pharisee, "thank God, I'm not like the rest of men."
A parable is not a true story. Our Lord just uses parables to make a point. Remember that tax collectors were despised by the Jews. It wasn't just a natural aversion to taxes. It was common knowledge that tax collectors enriched themselves unfairly and dishonestly. Moreover, they were regarded as traitors since they were doing the dirty work of the hated Romans. Here is what our Lord says about the prayer of the tax collector:
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.'
How many of us say this kind of prayer? I don't mean that we have to consider ourselves evil like Hitler. I just mean that in the words of the immortal Clint Eastwood, "we have to know our limitations." We have to realize that we are fallible, not infallible--that our ideas and opinions might be wrong or in need of correction. In fact, the great antidote to pride is humility and the practice of obedience is the best way to achieve humility.
For children obedience to parents is a necessary first step in developing humility. There is nothing worse to see than a prideful, willful child who treats his or her parents with contempt. Just think how much nicer life would be if teenagers practiced humility and obedience. How many of today's marriages break up because husbands and wives cannot defer to each others authority. Finally, even our senior citizens find it hard to surrender their authority to their children who must take care of them in their old age.
It might seem that in today's second reading St. Paul is showing a little bit of pride. We must know that when he wrote the letter to Timothy, Paul was in a Roman prison awaiting his impending execution. He is looking back on his life and says in all humility that if he has achieved anything, it was all due to the Lord "who stood by me and gave me strength." This is one of my favorite passages in scripture. Paul affirms that he has given his own life in doing the Lord's work.
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."
Hopefully, Paul's words will be ours when we look back on our lives.