30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
October 24, 2010
Last week, we reflected on persistent prayer. Prayer spelled the victory of God in Moses’ developing problem with the Amalekite marauders. Prayer, the persistent type, spelled too, fulfillment of the widow’s request from the unjust judge. This Sunday, we are back once more, at least initially, to the topic of constant prayer.
Sirach gives the opening salvo for us. He is our authority of the day. In prophetic fashion that accrues from the wisdom tradition, he declares unequivocally a double truth born out of his own and his people’s experience: the truth of God’s justice, on the one hand, and that of His mercy, on the other. “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” But wait … Sirach gives the thought a second look, and this time, he speaks from his people’s journey of faith. He declares once more, that God was not “unduly partial toward the weak, yet he HEARS the cry of the oppressed.” God hears. God listens. No, He does more … God obeys (eisakouo) the pleadings of the poor and the lowly.
There is something about someone hearing that reminds us of somebody else speaking and pleading, and praying. God could not have “obeyed” had someone not interceded; had someone not prayed. Again, Scripture reminds us of the power of prayer. This, the psalmist tells us in his most convincing apologia: “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me? My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Scripture does not explain and expound. Scripture just simply reports the fact in a straightforward fashion. It is a two-pronged fact. One is the established fact of God’s justice. The other is the unfolding fact in His people’s history of His preferential option for the poor and the powerless. Diane Bergant, apropos this, puts it so well: “[Sirach] insists that God is concerned with justice, not favoritism; when God takes the side of the poor, it is for the sake of justice, not poverty.” And God does so, most especially because the orphan, the widow, and the lowly take resort to prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.”
Both the second and third readings offer us examples of prayerful people for whom God has become real and personal. This, the readings give us by way of contrast. St. Paul, knowing that his end was drawing nigh, gives in to grateful remembering. He sees himself as an offering being poured out on the altar of sacrifice. He sees himself taking leave of what he has gotten used to doing all his life, and, like a faithful soldier, just fading away slowly from the scene. His memories are well stocked, not with achievements, but with what God, in His power and mercy, has wrought in him. Grateful remembering gives way to humble boasting as only the really humble can do. In the utter simplicity of his childlike faith, he makes a “boast” to Timothy and his flock: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” But this was not the inane boasting of a proud man who only wanted merit for himself. This was the humble boasting of a man who knew all along that, in his weakness, God had been his strength. “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the gentiles might hear it … To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
In the Gospel, the Lord shocks us his hearers once again. In another story of “reversals,” we are presented with the image of a “good tax collector.” Since when did tax collectors who padded their collections many times over, been associated with “good”? But the Lord did not favor the publican as against the other because that other happened to be a Pharisee. The Lord did not condemn a Pharisee for being a Pharisee; nor did the Lord favor the publican for being one, as we shall see.
Seen in the backdrop of today’s readings and the theme of the liturgical celebration, the gospel presents us with something which, someone like Paul, like Sirach, could boast about. Two men entered the temple. One boasted of his “righteousness.” The other confessed his sinfulness. The former, certain and complacent in his pretended goodness, did nothing but enumerate his good acts. He worked his way through his list of good deeds, and felt smug about them. He came, not to pray, but to tell. He came, not to acknowledge, but to judge. “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”
But it is the latter, the publican, who came mortified before the Lord. He came with sorrow in his heart, not praise for his good deeds. He came with humble acceptance of his sins, not defiant proclamation of his achievements. He came, not with a lame boast, but with a claim to his own sinfulness. He came, not with a press (or “praise”) release, but with a prayer for mercy: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Here we are with a story with immense shock value! What a story of reversals! What a story about Christian essentials! It is a story, not about class struggle between Pharisees and Publicans, nor is it a story about God’s favoritism. But it does have something to tell us smug and complacent people who feel happy and contented that “we are not like the rest of humanity.” It does have a message to people like us, who can be satisfied that we are not “terrorists,” that we are not “murderers” and “thieves;” that we are not given in to doing such dastardly acts as we read in the papers and see on TV on a daily basis. It does have something to say to that attitude of religious arrogance that we can have at times. It sure has something to say about our prayer, which, like that of the Pharisee, is often more like a monologue than anything else. It sure has something to say to us who are often given in to empty boasting, and to self-centered focusing, more on the evil that we have not done, and less on the good that we ought to have done.
The Pharisee, who came, not to pray, but to boast, got home feeling good about himself, but not justified before God, who “reads the heart” of people. What he said was not answered, for the simple reason that he did not make a prayer. He made a praise release. The Publican, who came with the humble request for mercy, got what he asked for – and more.
Today is a day for all of us to make a solid choice: simply boast and go home empty-handed, or boast humbly in the Lord, and go home filled. “For he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Indeed, to quote an American author, “nothing is more simple than greatness; to be simple is to be great.”