Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalms 34:2-3, 17-19, 23
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
At the outset, note that today’s parable is addressed to all “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” This description of a large number of people sounds strangely familiar to last week’s description of the unjust judge, who “neither feared God nor respected any human being.” As the tensions with Scribes and Pharisees in the gospel increases, Jesus appears to be on a roll, desiring to make sure that some people are informed that their behavior is unacceptable. Jesus teaches some harsh realities with all subtlety, and He teaches all in the form of parables. He is seldom accusatory, for His point is only heard if the listener bothers to take the parable to heart.
We are reminded in our first reading from Sirach, that “the Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” Further, we seem to be reminded of last weekend’s parable when Sirach says: “The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.” God listens, and “judges justly and affirms the right.” It is the prayer of the lowly, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the oppressed, which is capable of “piercing the heavens,” and once it does, “the Lord will not delay in answering.”
The wisdom of the Scriptures should not be overlooked, for Jesus, as Son of Man and as God, possesses the most unique insight into the human nature He took on as a mantle. Jesus recognized from His own earthly experience, that in any sizable crowd who gathered around Him there would be those who were incapable of hearing His message, and as He journeyed toward Jerusalem where all of His Father’s plan would be accomplished, He surely knew that among those standing in front of Him were those who would very soon cry out for His crucifixion and death. His mission would not be measured by the conversion of all people, which is why Good Friday was so discouraging to His followers. Jesus’ mission, in good times and bad, was to preach the good news, a news that was capable of setting humankind free, but only if they listened.
Today’s parable is a good example of Jesus preaching against all odds. The majority of His listeners no doubt did not see themselves standing among those who were “convinced of their own righteousness, despising everyone else!” Jesus made the parable all the more striking by choosing a tax collector to be the foil. Of course the Pharisee did not see himself as that part of humanity – “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” More negative encomiums might have been added, for tax collectors were despised by the general population of Jesus’ day. Their collusion with the much hated Romans left them standing way outside of the circle of those who thought of themselves as religious. The image of the Pharisee vs. the tax collector would have been striking to Jesus’ listeners.
The demeanor of the tax collector, unable even to raise his eyes toward the heavens, would have been viewed as the right response for a tax collector, but his genuine humility did not go unnoticed by Jesus. When Jesus declares: “I tell you, the [tax collector] went home justified, not the [Pharisee],” the crowd had to catch their breath. The purpose of the parable was to teach that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Not an easy pill to swallow!
Human nature has not changed much since the time of Jesus, and we could no doubt rattle off the names of those who we think are beneath us, or who don’t measure up to what we would consider to be ‘religious.’ That is why this parable is proclaimed on this thirtieth Sunday on Ordinary time. We need to heed the call to humility. We must resist the temptation to “exalt” ourselves, to see ourselves as better than we are. With oftentimes inflated egos, we approach God more like the Pharisee, and less like the tax collector. May we long for the humility which will enable us to see ourselves as God sees us. May we see ourselves as a sinner among sinners, who do our best to open our hearts to the teaching of our Master, for His teaching is capable of leading us to eternal life.