Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross
Sunday 23 October, 2016
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
Our first reading from Sirach or Ecclesiasticus makes it clear that we cannot fool God any of the time. In each mass we pray, “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open and all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Our God who takes account, not only of our actions but also of our intentions, shatters the power of the unjust.
Jesus’ parable illustrates this very point. In it, God vindicates the oppressed and condemns the self-righteous who despise others.
Two men were praying in the Temple. One was a Pharisee, the other a Tax Collector. Although Pharisees were strict in their observance of the Jewish Religious law, they were the most liberal of the Jewish groups of the first century AD. The Pharisee prayed prayers that were part of the Jewish liturgy. He fasted more than the law required and he was generous in his gifts to God. He recognised that everything he possessed was a gift from God and he did not neglect to thank God for his generous blessings. He didn’t ask God for anything, so those Pharisees who heard Jesus tell this parable, would consider this man to be an exemplary Jew who was clearly a righteous man and a credit to God’s people.
In contrast, the Tax Collector was despised because it was known that Tax collectors were corrupt and they worked for a foreign power that oppressed the Jewish people. It was surprising that this man had the audacity to present himself in God’s Temple, let alone offer prayers to God. At least he had to good sense to stand by the back wall and keep his eyes firmly planted on the ground. He was ritually unclean and had nothing by which he could commend himself to anyone, to say nothing of God. Yet he also prayed a prayer from the Jewish liturgy. He prayed the opening words of Psalm 51, “Have mercy upon me O God after thy great goodness.” In appealing to God’s goodness, he was hoping for mercy and forgiveness.
If God was indeed merciful he knew that he would have to give up his job as a Tax Collector, pay back all those he had cheated, plus 20 per cent and run the risk of retribution from the Romans. He was indeed between a rock and a hard place.
Yet Jesus said that it was this man, rather than the Pharisee whose prayer was heard. Here is another gospel story that reverses to normal order of the world’s values and structures. Read the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Good Samaritan and the bad priest and Levite; the good Prodigal Son and the bad brother; the good Lazarus and the bad rich man. Here we have the good Tax Collector and the bad Pharisee.
To grasp the meaning of this parable, it is important to realise that Jesus was telling this to Pharisees. They considered themselves to be observant Jews, but this attitude could give rise to an attitude of spiritual superiority that is judgmental of others. The Pharisee’s prayer in the Temple was essentially about himself telling God how virtuous he was.
It is this kind of spiritual pride that Pope Francis condemns because it creates division in the Church. It is a temptation for those who consider themselves to be the only true Catholics as well as for those Catholics who consider the Church to be so severely backward that it is out of touch with the world. Like those politicians who refuse to trust the voters in a plebiscite, these spiritual elites are so entrenched in their self-assured piety, they will not trust God and leave judgment to him.
Having faith is trusting in God, and that requires that others must be respected, not despised. The Tax Collector had faith because he trusted God’s goodness. The Pharisee thanked God, but trusted himself.
If we Christian disciples do not trust God, how can we encourage others to do so? This was an issue St Paul faced. In our second reading we heard how Paul knew that his days were numbered, so he had to hand over his ministry to someone else who also trusted God. Paul tells Timothy that he had persevered in his trust of God and the teachings of the Church so he had nothing to fear from God. In saying these things, he was encouraging Timothy to do the same.
So we add another piece to our understanding of faith. Faith is being in relationship with God, listening and speaking to him in prayer. Faith requires us to trust the Church’s teaching even if we cannot grasp some of it, rather than picking and choosing what we like. Faith requires that we teach what the Church teaches, and invite them to come and meet Jesus for themselves. This requires humility that refuses to judge and despise others, but rather loves them so we can lead them to understand and accept the teachings that will save them.
If we prevent others from accepting salvation through our spiritual pomposity, it will be we, not they, who are called to account. We should indeed remove the plank from our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.