‘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.’
In the gospel today, we see two characters in the Temple. It is a place, like the church, that determines the rules of the game and formed both character. Both are victims of a dominating system that declares who is right and not right with God. Both need liberation from a system that, unlike God, divides people. We miss the point if the Pharisee is judged for his statement/prayer because he was formed by a system - call it ‘clericalism’ – that separates or divides people into the righteous and the sinner, into the leaders and the led.
But before falling into the trap of judging the Pharisee, we must remember that Pharisees enjoyed considerable respect with ordinary as religious teachers and exemplars of conventional morality. His prayer was correct: they did keep the law; most likely were not greedy, dishonest or adulterers like most people; and, tithed their possessions to help with the Temple upkeep. In contrast, tax collectors were often notorious crooks, despised, typically dishonest and greedy who took advantage of vulnerable people.
The Pharisee was trapped in dualistic thinking which divided his world between righteous and unrighteous, law-abiders like himself and law breakers like that tax collector. It is this dualistic thinking that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see and hear the plight of the so-called ‘other’. But, the tax collector makes a move into God world of embrace, mercy and justice for all – even the enemy. The gospel refrain is about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – anyone needing special protection particularly in a culture that tended to write them off or ignore them. Whereas convention classed them as deviant, they are dear to the heart of Jesus, even the worst of them, especially because of their place in society, not for any virtue but because of their low social status. These are the ones whom God consciously identifies with-who hears the cry of the oppressed, the wail of the orphan, the prayer of the lowly. (cf. The responsorial psalm today: ‘The Lord hears the cry of the poor.’). God’s reign is for all, even the Pharisee.
Some years ago, a chaplain in a maximum security prison in Melbourne wrote of meeting an inmate accused of a serious crime. After the meeting, the chaplain came across reports of the crimes that this person had committed. He deemed a dangerous and irredeemable monster. The chaplain said that this did not resemble the person he had met. What struck the chaplain was that the person he encountered did not resemble the person he met. Calling him a monster made it easy to disregard his humanity and a story that included enormous deprivation, abuse, and loss of cherished relationships, grief and sadness.
We labelled people escaping oppression and seeking asylum as ‘queue-jumpers’ or ‘illegals’ or just ‘economic refugees.’ Thus, we do not need to listen to their story and can overlook their plight. People who are unemployed or underemployed are labelled as bludgers and lazy, thus there is no need for understanding. Labelling dismisses the lived human experience of the 'other'. In 2013, Pope Francis referred to the lack of concern for the suffering of refugees and migrants as a 'globalisation of indifference' as 'we have become used to the suffering of others.' He suggested that blindness to the suffering of our brothers and sisters and the labels attributed to them renders them invisible – and shrinks our humanity. It contributes to a world that is exclusive rather inclusive; intolerant rather than compassionate; judgemental rather than embracing and welcoming of diversity.
Jesus sets up a situation that lets the light of true humanity shine through. We can be aware of both aspects of the Church – it beautiful side and its ugly side. It provides us with millions of witnesses who give themselves for others.
Today’s gospel is relevant to the disparaging attitudes and actions of church leaders in the lead up to the Pan-Amazon Synod in Rome. Pope Francis is keen to take the church to the peripheries but like the Pharisee in the temple, many do not want to be part of the great reversal or entrance into the mess that is called for: where the cries of the poor, dispossessed and oppressed are listened to, where the first are last, where the poor are rich, and those on the edges and even considered sinners are rewarded. These church leaders are also excluding themselves. They do not seem to want to have much or anything to do with mess of ordinary people’s lives. It seems difficult for them to conceive of a Reign of God that is open to such people. If it did exist, one might wonder if they would want to be there.
So, according to Jesus, the ‘undesirables’ are the ones to whom the Reign of God belongs. Any separation from such people means to exclude oneself from God’s Reign. Today’s readings are truly radical. They do not affirm everyday morality or wisdom. They are about those who belong and who exclude themselves from God’s Reign.
True prayer does not separate us but binds us closer to each other to all living things. It takes us increasingly to the peripheries where people often do not make it. Perfection, virtue, and accompanying arrogance, often reflects the prejudices of the dominant culture – a culture that sees people as disposable and creates communities of throwaways.
Today’s message is that we are all part of God’s embrace. We are invited to leave aside all comparisons and deepen our relationship with the God of mercy. 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 they are brothers; and, that it is the fire of God’s heart and life that liberates us.
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.’
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Erskineville, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)