Thirtieth Sunday of the Year
‘Faith is always supposed to make it harder, not easier, to ignore the plight of our sisters and brothers. (Robin R. Meyers Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, p. 165)’. Again, the scriptures reinforce God’s partiality toward ‘the oppressed...orphan...widow and the lowly.’
This parable leaves us in a bind. Superficially, it wants to draw us in to identify with the tax collector as opposed to the Pharisee. This traditional interpretation can result in doing what the parable is trying to avoid where we thank God that we not like that Pharisee. It can also perpetuate harmful views by failing to distinguish between a Pharisee and “all Jews” and play into old images about them being legalistic, elitist, and out of touch with the “true” God. Anti-Jewish hatred has plagued Christianity from its beginnings and still causes harm today, e.g., where “the Jews” are called “children of the devil” (John 8:44) and “chief priests” and “the Jews” are used interchangeably for those who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:1-16).
The Pharisees in Luke often get a negative review as being portrayed consistently in opposition to Jesus’ program and accusing Jesus of blasphemy (5:21); accusing him and the disciples of violating the Sabbath (6:1-11); being described as “lovers of money” (16:14), and “hypocrites” (12:1) by Jesus. Connecting Jews with Pharisees can easily slide from the conventional insult … ‘the Pharisees’ to ‘all Jews.” The conventional wisdom and stereotypical characterisation of Pharisees, and Jewish people, is challenged by the historical record, where Josephus described them as living simply and shunning excess and within the broader Jewish tradition were not seen legalistic, rigid, and elitist.
We need to be honest and admit that this story presents difficulties in setting up the Pharisee “bad” versus tax collector “good” dichotomy. It is necessary to take seriously the great commandment of loving God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves affirmed by Jesus throughout the gospels, to avoid the falling into the trap of setting up Jesus and his teachings against Judaism or being anti-Jewish. He was thoroughly Jewish, and his teachings were rooted in the Torah and the Jewish prophetic tradition. All today’s readings emphasise God’s love and mercy for all.
So, rather than falling into the either/or situation of the tax collector versus the Pharisee, what we could admit the complexity of all humanity and search for common ground. The tax collector’s powerful demonstration of repentance and humility may have been prompted by a strong feeling guilt for being an agent of the Roman empire and unjustly extracting wealth from his community. This may be the context for the Pharisees negative feelings against the tax collector. Pope Francis, in addressing ways of moving forward with the legacy of anti-Jewish portrayals and actions, says : “Love of neighbor, then, represents a significant indicator for recognizing affinities between Jesus and his Pharisee interlocutors. It certainly constitutes an important basis for any dialogue, especially among Jews and Christians, even today.” By being honest about the legacy of Christian biblical interpretation, uncovering the harmful and violent impact on the Jewish community, and grounding our preaching in truth-telling and love of neighbor, we can find a way for the life-giving essence of God for all to emerge.
Labelling has been part of our contemporary lives. We can do it to people in leadership and authority – yes, even bishops! We have done it to people escaping oppression and labelled ‘queue-jumpers’ or ‘illegals’ or just ‘economic refugees’ without listening to their story of their plight. Unemployed or underemployed people, even people who are homeless, have been labelled as lazy or ‘bludgers’ without concern for their background. Indigenous people have had their culture devalued. In each case there is no need for understanding and we can dismiss the lived human experience of the 'other'. Pope Francis has said that blindness to the suffering of others and attributing labels to them renders them invisible – and shrinks their and our humanity. It contributes to a more exclusive rather inclusive world, that is intolerant rather than compassionate, and judgemental rather than embracing and welcoming of diversity. Today’s readings are truly radical. They do not affirm everyday morality or wisdom. We are all part of God’s embrace. We are invited to set aside all comparisons and deepen our relationship with the God of mercy. Is this not what prayer is meant to be? Should it not bind us closer to closer to each other to all living things? Should it not take us more and more to the peripheries where there is pain, suffering and failure? Jesus shows us who God is, and who we are to God. No one is excluded. Who knows what change might come about in us when we realise this? It might involve letting go of fixed ideas and positions allowing others space and time to grow. If prayer, our connection with God, is truly life-changing then we might make it possible for others to change. God does not keep account of good and bad deeds and then sees what our lives add up. We do not know if the tax collector left the temple to live differently and begin a life that was just, fair and good. Hopefully, both men came to see that God is life-giving; that all are sisters and brothers; that it is the fire of God’s heart and life that liberates us.
God invites us to help incarnate his love mercy and justice in this world with a focus on the cry of the poor. We are invited to view the current situation in our world not just from a distance, through a new story or a newspaper article, but from a real-life perspective from a face-to-face interaction – from a place that allows us to hear the cry of the poor.
Our greatest challenge today is that we live fast paced lives we risk getting so caught up in our life that we can no longer hear the cry of the poor. We can be indifferent to their suffering.
May we recognise our brokenness and see this as a way to greater connectedness, service and compassion. May we open our eyes to the signs of God’s Reign and God’s acceptance of us. As Robin Meyers says, ‘Faith is always supposed to make it harder, not easier, to ignore the plight of our sisters and brothers.’
God, our Advocate,
open us up to the movement of your Spirit.
Allow us to see ourselves and others that are different from us as part of you and your people.
Help us to grow in the knowledge and awareness of your divine invitation to live in partnership with you
and help us to throw off
the prejudice, fear, rejection and pain
that separates us from your unbounded and unconditional love.
O, God, hear our prayer.
Out in Scripture