Sunday of Week 30 in Ordinary Time (C)

Commentary on Sirach 35:12-14, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 and Luke 18:9-14

One of the lessons of today’s readings is that God listens especially to the sinner and to the poor.  The attitude of Jesus is well expressed in the First Reading, from the Book of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus).

God shows no respect of personages to the detriment of a poor man, he listens to the plea of the injured party. He does not ignore the orphan’s supplication, nor the widow’s as she pours out her story…The humble man’s prayer pierces the clouds…And the Lord will not be slow, nor will he be dilatory on their behalf.

Perhaps we find that rather strange.  Should he not be listening more to the “good” people who are trying to keep his laws?  That was certainly the attitude of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. When someone offends us, how do we feel?  Often we are likely to feel angry and hurt. Do we want to take some kind of revenge, to punish that person?  At the very least, we want to make sure that he or she does not behave towards us in that way again.

It is not surprising, then, that many feel, after doing some wrong, God has been “offended”.  His reaction should be like ours and with greater reason: he is the Boss.  After doing something we know is quite wrong, we might wonder how God could continue to love us. Yet, if that is the way we think, we are quite wrong.

But how can God be said to love a sinner?  It is precisely as a sinner that a person most needs the love of God, most needs his help.  God, unlike us, does not see a sin as an “offence” against himself.  Rather he sees the sinner as a person who has made a bad mistake and needs to be healed and restored.  It is the sinner who is hurt, not God.  This is the meaning of the parables of the Good Shepherd and the Prodigal Son, which we read a few Sundays back.

Strange scene
So, in today’s Gospel we have the strange scene between a Pharisee and a tax collector.  The Pharisee – and he clearly believes he has evidence to prove it – is the “good” person.  He carefully keeps the Law of the Jews and the Commandments of God.  He faithfully observes the obligations of a good Jew: he prays, he fasts, and he gives alms.  And yet, God is not happy with him.  Why?  Because he is a totally self-centred person.  He says, “I thank you, God, that I am not like others, especially this terrible tax collector…”  What he really is saying is: “God, you should be deeply grateful that you have someone like me (and there are not many of us), someone who is so faithful in following your commands…”

When he prays, fasts, give alms, it is not because he loves God (or the poor) and wants to serve God.  It is because he loves himself; he is the centre of his whole existence.  Even God is on the fringe.  God should be so happy to have such a rare example like him.  Especially when so many are like the tax collector.

Jesus criticises the Pharisee for not being aware that all these good things he claims to do have God as their source.  Without God, he could do nothing, he would be nothing.

Getting his ‘come-uppance’
We can readily go along with the idea that the snob gets his ‘come-uppance’ and the modest person is praised.  That is valued in our society, and in theory at least, generally accepted.  Yet, if we were more honest, we might find that there is a lot of the Pharisee in ourselves.  Let us, by way of experiment, update the prayer to that of a “good” Catholic. It might go something like this: “Thank you, God, that I am a Catholic and not like those deluded Protestants and materialistic pagans.  I go faithfully to Mass every Sunday and I usually receive Communion and now and again I go to Confession.  I am generous with the church collections, my children are all baptised and they go to good Catholic schools.  I am faithful to my wife (well, maybe there is the odd peccadillo) and, thank you, God, I am successful in my business.  It is not always easy, but I try to keep on the right side of the law.  I want to see all my children do as well as I have or even better.  Once I year I do a retreat.  I, of course, do not claim to be a saint, but I am an average, maybe above average, church-going Catholic, which is more than can be said of the many so-called Catholics and non-Catholics I know.  Thank you, God, that I have not become like any of them.”

We might compare this attitude with what seems like boasting on Paul’s – another Pharisee – part in today’s Second Reading.  “I have fought the good fight…” he says with apparent satisfaction.  Yet his attitude is so different from that of the Pharisee or “good” Catholic.  First, all that he achieved he attributes to his Lord and, second, his whole life had been lived as a “libation”, all his energies poured out, not for himself, but so that others might come to know, as he did, the power of Christ’s love in their lives.

A sinner
On the other hand, the tax collector is certainly a sinner.  He surely does not observe the Jewish law. If he is like the average tax collector, he is a swindler and extortionist.  He collects tax money from his own oppressed people and hands (some of) it to the hated Romans.  He really is a sinner.  He really behaves abominably before God and neighbour.  And God loves him!

For Jesus says that when the tax collector left the Temple, he did so as a friend of God, while the Pharisee was rejected.  How can this be?  Is this God’s justice?  The reason is that, although the tax collector is undoubtedly a sinner, he admits his sin.  He knows that by himself he cannot do anything, that he cannot change, unless God comes to his help.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” he implores.  God will come immediately to the help of a sinner who in humility and truth recognises his sin.  On the other hand, how can God come to help a proud man, who thinks he can take care of himself?

A special gift
One of the greatest gifts is for us to know our sinfulness.  In the First Letter of John it says: “If we say we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth…  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:6,8).

This was the problem of the Pharisee.   He thought he had fellowship with God but he walked in darkness.  He was blind.  Not so the tax collector.  I think it would be true to say that, in recent years, while we have gained much in our understanding of a Gospel-centred life, we have lost a sensitivity about sin in our lives.

One indication of that is that, while many, many more people go to Communion at Mass now, far less are using the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  No one should regret the passing of the old “this-is-Saturday-I-must-go-to-confession” mentality, or worse, “I-can’t-go-to-Communion-because-I-have-not-been-to-confession” conviction but in its place many have not learnt the place of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as an important element not only in our individual lives but in our lives as community.

Sin can too easily be seen as a personal failure to meet certain behavioural standards: “I was impatient”, “I was jealous, got angry”, “I was not at Sunday Mass”…  Sin is much more fundamentally a failure in relationships – with God, with other people, with oneself.   We can sin against ourselves, with our family members, with our colleagues, with our friends, with total strangers, with people we never see but who have been affected by our love or our selfishness.

Sin is a failure to love, a failure to work for the well-being of others.  Many of our worst sins – seldom heard in the confessional – are the things we don’t do at all.  At the judgement the Lord will say: “I was hungry, thirsty, lonely, struggling to get along, obviously in trouble – and you did not abuse me, attack me, get angry at me or hurt me.  No, you did absolutely nothing at all!   I was in desperate need and you walked by, away from me!”

Sin and God
A deep awareness of sin does not separate us from God.  On the contrary, it is a sign that God is very much part of our lives and that we wish to partake of that love he is reaching out to us.  The most tragic people are those who:

  • think that they do not need God in their lives (like the Pharisee or some ex-Catholics);
  • when asked, cannot think of anything sinful in their lives, present or past;
  • think that God does not, cannot love them because of some terrible or shameful things they may have done.

The Easter Vigil (Holy Saturday) liturgy speaks of the felix culpa, the “happy fault” when we human beings crucified the Son of God.  Many of our sins, too, can be seen as a happy fault, if they help us to realise how weak we are, how much we depend on God’s help and the help of other people.

An awareness of our sins, too, can help us in our lives to be far more compassionate and understanding towards others in their sinfulness and weakness.  In the depths of our sinfulness we must never lose sight of the God who is always standing by ready to come at our merest signal. Again, as it says in the First Reading, “The humble man’s prayer pierces the clouds…the Lord will not be slow in coming.”

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