Sunday Gospel Reflection for 30th Sunday of the Year, October 23rd Written by Fr Brian Maher OMI
Can I earn my place in Heaven? Can anything I do give me a right to be with God? These are the questions Jesus unambiguously answers in today’s Gospel of the “Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” And the answer is a resounding ‘NO’ to both.
So, why bother living a good life, and trying to be honest and just? Why bother keeping the commandments, doing penance, and fasting? If all I have to do is ask for God’s mercy, what’s the point in doing all of these, much more difficult, things?
Join me in reflecting on today’s wonderful parable.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday October 23rd
The Pharisee in today’s Gospel is probably not a bad man. After all he fasts twice a week and gives one tenth of all he earns to the Temple for distribution to the poor. Fasting, no matter how motivated we are, is not easy and choosing hunger is never fun. Likewise, if I earn 10,000 in whatever currency I choose, and give away 1,000 of that to whatever Church I belong to, I am being quite generous. Regardless of motivation, the Pharisee does this. Nor is he “grasping, unjust or adulterous” so those viewing his lifestyle from the outside would see a ‘good-living’ person.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is an outcast, viewed by the population as a collaborator with Rome, and therefore, a traitor. What’s more, tax collectors were viewed as dishonest extortionists, taking more than was due, always accompanied by Roman soldiers, and so, above challenge and able to impose their will. So great was the animosity towards them that it was presumed that only an already evil and dishonest person would accept such a job. Of course there must have been ‘good’ tax collectors but they would be few and far between.
Our tax collector today would not have been welcome in the Temple and no self-respecting Jew would want to be seen with or even close to him. He would be ostracised and shunned by everyone present. The Pharisee would not be alone in his condemnation of the tax collector.
All parables rely on exaggeration to make clear their message. The prayer of the Pharisee is about as awful as a prayer can get. The Pharisee might have felt that he was ‘better’ than the tax collector but it is highly unlikely that he would ever word his hatred as “… I am not like the rest of mankind…” The tax collector may well have been aware of his sinfulness, but if he truly wanted God’s forgiveness the first thing he would probably do is STOP being a tax collector! Both characters are unreal and they are intended to be unreal. They are used only to show, by stark contrast, the message Jesus wants his hearers to become aware of.
So, what then is the problem with the prayer of the Pharisee? He does fast, he does pay his dues, he does live an honest and just life… what more could be asked?
The problem he has, I think, is that he genuinely believes that doing these things will earn him a place in Heaven. He thinks that ‘doing the right thing’ is enough. He thinks that sticking strictly to the rules and laws of his Religion, and avoiding the “thou shalt not’s…” of the commandments, he has earned a right to Heaven.
What Jesus is pointing out is that his Kingdom does not work like that. Nobody has a right to God. “His ways are so far above our ways and his thoughts are so far above our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9), that nobody can say, “I have earned my right to be with God.”
By contrast, the tax collector, is under no pretence that he can earn his way to God. All – and it truly is ‘all’ – he can do is “beat his breast and say, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’” And the message? This is how the Kingdom of God works.
Parables work so well because the contrasts between the characters and actions of the story are so stark and unambiguous. Those listening cannot avoid seeing the truth of the story. In this parable that truth is, “that he (the tax collector) went home at rights with God; the other (the Pharisee) did not.”
And let us make no mistake, for those hearing this story, it would have made difficult hearing. For the Jewish people, the coming of the Messiah and God’s Kingdom would recognise all that the Chosen People had done, would vindicate them in the sight of their enemies, and would reward them for their adherence to the Law and the Covenant. In other words, God’s Kingdom was all about the Chosen People earning their way to God. The Kingdom of God was theirs by right; open to non-Jews after God’s judgement and at God’s favour.
And then, along comes Jesus saying, “don’t think you can earn a place in the Kingdom of God by fasting and keeping the commandments. Don’t think that even living a just and honest life can earn you a place at God’s side, because it can’t! Nothing can earn you a place in the Kingdom. Instead, you must trust in God’s mercy and nothing else.”
This is not the Kingdom the Jews were expecting. Surely God’s Kingdom would exalt the people of Israel and reward them for their faithfulness to the Law? Surely, it would not be enough just to lower your eyes and ask for mercy? If this is God’s Kingdom then why did we try so hard and struggle for so long to keep the Law of Moses? It is a very strange Kingdom when a sinner can be exalted just for asking for mercy, and a just, honest, good-living person can be humbled and maybe even excluded!
It seems to me that the challenge of Jesus always returns to what the Kingdom of God looks like and what it does not look like. It was a rejection of Jesus’ view of God’s Kingdom that ultimately led to his death. It was his Resurrection which said, once and for all, “My (God’s) Kingdom is exactly as Jesus said it was. Listen to him and have faith. You don’t need anything else!”
For the Jews of Jesus’ time there was an excuse. Their long history expected one kind of Kingdom to come with the Messiah. It was quite an ask to expect them to accept something totally different at the word of an itinerant miracle worker and storyteller.
We, however, live after the Resurrection, and therefore we have no such excuse. We have seen the Kingdom come in the person of Jesus, and we know it’s true because of his Resurrection from the dead.
It will not be enough for us to say to God, “…but we went to Mass, we fasted and did pilgrimages and penances, we said our prayers and kept the commandments and rules of the Church. Surely this gains us entry to the Kingdom of God?” This won’t be enough because that is exactly what the Pharisee said in today’s parable, and it wasn’t enough.
The Kingdom of God was something different to what the Jewish people were expecting, and the Kingdom of God is still something different to what our upbringing, our culture, our society tell us is good and right.
Ultimately, the Kingdom of God is open to those who lower their eyes, beat their breast, and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
This demands faith and trust, and these, I am coming to realise in my own life, are a lot harder than keeping commandments, doing penance, and following the laws of any Church.
If we kept this parable beside our beds and read it every night and every morning, perhaps its truth might, over time, sink-in and change, not the way we live, but the way we think and feel.
Let me finish with a tiny poem, written many hundreds of years ago. See it as a parable and make of it what you will:
If you could empty all of yourself of self,
Like to an empty shell,
Then might He find you on the ocean shelf,
And say, “This is not dead”,
And fill you with himself instead.
But you are all replete within yourself,
And have such smart activity,
That when He comes He says, “This is enough
Unto itself – ’twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”
(Sir Thomas Browne 1605 – 1682)
|Gospel Reading for Sunday October 23rd||Luke 18:9-14|
The tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home justified
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