THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings here
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.”
The Liturgical Year and the Gospel of Luke are both well into the fourth quarter. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is coming to its close. In fact, the arrival into the Holy City and the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple will occur in the very next chapter (19). Likewise, this Sunday (30th in Ordinary Time) will find us only four weeks from the Feast of Christ the King, the final (34th) observance of the Ordinary Season Cycle. A catechetical tool: the Church’s liturgical season generally concludes around the same weekend as the annual Michigan-Ohio State football classic.
As the climax to Luke’s Gospel draws ever nearer, there is pressing need for clarity about who can truly be judged worthy of entrance into the coming Kingdom of God, and what kind of person one must be to be judged suitable for the Kingdom. Joel Green makes an important point about prayer in this context: when the term is used in the latter stages of Luke’s Gospel, it prayer is a measure of personality, not simply a formula. Prayer embraces a person’s “disposition and practices.” (p. 644) Twentieth century moral theologians would coin the phrase “fundamental option” to capture the deepest truth of a person’s beliefs, values, and conduct. Luke captures something of this basic moral disposition in a study of contrasts, two men praying side by side in the center of Judaism’s religious and cultural life.
Though Jesus does not strictly identify overconfidence with any group, the metaphor here is applied to the Pharisees. “Pharisee” is the name given to an intensely committed body of laymen devoted to Jewish life and knowledge of the Law. Green explains that the first character in this setting is one of those who, “having become convinced of their own self-righteousness, they have come to depend upon themselves.” (p. 646) Pharisees have had several tense encounters with Jesus already in Luke’s Gospel, primarily when Jesus’ vision and teaching took him beyond the strictures of later historical opinions on the Law; the issue of divorce is a good example.
True to form, the Pharisee asks for nothing, and certainly not forgiveness; instead, he uses the prayer moment to reflect back upon his achievements. Notice how his prayer is really addressed to himself. “Thank God I am not like the rest of humanity.” If you are looking for a good example of hubris, here it is. Actually, he is claiming to be more than a Pharisee, whose concrete obligations would normally include fasting on designated days, weekly prayer and observing the customary tithe. But the Pharisee goes on to boast that for him, the general Pharisaic way of life is too low a bar to measure his goodness. He observes that he fasts twice weekly and pays “tithes on my whole income.” In other words, he does not use loopholes available in Jewish Law practice, of which there were a considerable amount.
There is another factor in the Pharisee’s “prayer” that does not translate well into English. The Pharisee has contempt for the [Roman] tax collector. In Greek, the pronoun “this” can, in certain settings, carry a derogative meaning. This is evident in the story of the Prodigal Son where the older resentful brother, in reference to his celebrated younger brother, refers to him as “this son of yours.” The nuance here is critical, for in the teaching of Jesus, it is not just one’s vertical relationship with God that opens the door to the kingdom; it is the horizontal relationships with one’s neighbor that will matter (“love thy neighbor as thyself.”) The Pharisee’s reference to “this tax collector” is a statement of both disdain and segregation. Jesus, of course, was censured by Pharisees for eating and drinking with tax collectors. It bears noting that the Pharisee seems to be an equal opportunity loather; he brands “the rest of humanity” as “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.”
We turn our attention to the tax collector, a Jew who collaborated with the Romans by collecting taxes for the Empire. Tax collectors of the day would have been regarded as low class deviants, and our player in this drama acknowledges as much as he “stood off at a distance.” Some scholars have wondered why the tax collector in this story does not have a parallel list of sins to the Pharisee’s good works. (In chapter 19, another tax collector, Zacchaeus, will have plenty to confess from his perch in a tree.) In the first instance, the tax collector’s postures and gestures speak volumes. Second, the broken man identifies his being as that of a sinner (“be merciful to me, a sinner.”) But the third point probably trumps all: it is his lowliness as an outcast from his own people that leads him to confessional prayer. As Green writes, there is nothing in this text that suggests the tax collector needs forgiveness for a specific sin. (p. 649)
The collector is the collective voice of all of us who will never enter the Kingdom of God unless we fall on our faces and acknowledge a total need for the saving grace of God. Jesus states that only the latter went home justified, a declaration that must have rattled the souls of more than a few in the crowd, including the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples, who had their own dalliances with “the bread of the Pharisees” in the Gospel. When the American colonists under Washington and Lafayette defeated the British General Cornwallis in the final battle of the Revolution, the Yankee band is supposed to have played “The World Turned Upside Down” for the defeated British troops. The final lines of Sunday’s Gospel capture this sentiment well; the humble—not the independently proud—will be exalted in God’s new Kingdom, which is now just around the corner. Time for hedging bets is just about over.