Sunday of Week 30 in Ordinary Time (C) – Additional Commentary

Commentary on Sirach 35:12-14,16-19, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 and Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisees regularly come under fire from Jesus and today is no exception. However, we should be aware that when Jesus speaks about ‘Pharisees’ he is not so much speaking about a whole class of people but about a certain kind of mentality. There is no doubt that many of the Pharisees were good people and took their religious obligations very seriously. We need to remember that Nicodemus, the man who came to Jesus by night and who was present at the burial of Jesus, was a Pharisee.

So when Jesus in the Gospel attacks ‘Pharisees’ he is not only thinking of a group of people in Jewish society in his time but his words – as far as the evangelists are concerned – are even more directed to the ‘Pharisees’ in the Christian community. And, whenever we hear a passage of the Gospel attacking the Pharisees, instead of ‘tut-tutting’ and saying to ourselves, ‘What awful people!’, we should rather be looking into our own selves and seeing how much of the Pharisee is in us.

For instance, do you ever find yourself sitting in judgement on other people? Have you ever found yourself comparing others unfavourably with yourself? How much time do you spend with friends or family gossiping about the presumed weaknesses of others? If the answer to these questions is a reluctant ‘Yes’, then we might read today’s Gospel with some fruit.

We are told that Jesus spoke a parable to some people “who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else”. Of course, none of us actually say we are proud of our virtues (especially of our humility!) and we would probably deny that we despise other people but, in fact, that is not what our words sound like at times.

In the parable, two men went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector. Tax collectors were among the most despised group of people in the time of Jesus. It was not just because they had to do an awful job. (Even nowadays people do not exactly warm to the idea of tax collectors and many people go to extraordinary measures to keep out of their clutches.)

Their reputation was more connected with the system under which they worked. The Romans – like all governments – imposed taxes in order to fund public works and other expenses. But, as far as possible, they made their subject peoples rather than their own citizens pay the money required. And they did not collect the money themselves. Instead, they farmed out the tax collecting to various individuals. These people paid up a large amount of money for the right to collect taxes and then it was their job to get it back – with interest (what we would now call ‘commission’). So, on two accounts the tax collectors were highly unpopular: they extorted as much money as they could from the people assigned to them and they were working for the hated colonial power. Because of their connections with the hated Romans, they were looked down on by most of their fellow-Jews as traitors and renegades and enemies of their own people.

So here we have two very different kind of people going to the Temple to pray. The prayer of the Pharisee consists partly of telling God how wonderful a Jew he is and partly of thanking God that he is not like the rest of mankind, ‘grasping, unjust and adulterous’. In addition to that, he performs religious duties above and beyond what the Law requires. In general, you are given the impression that God should be grateful that there is at least one person who gives him some attention.

On the other hand, the tax collector has no illusions about himself. He knows and admits that everything the Pharisee says about him is true. As he prays, he does not even dare to lift his eyes upwards but beats his breast in true repentance for the kind of life he has been leading. Unlike the Pharisee, he has nothing to give to God except his sinfulness so he prays: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus concludes by saying: “This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not.”

Does that seem a little harsh? After all, everything the Pharisee said about himself was true. He had kept the Law perfectly and had even done more than was expected. The tax collector, on the other hand, had done many sinful things.

The answer to this is in the final sentence of the Gospel: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, the fault of the Pharisee was not in his behaviour, but in his motivations – in his claimed self-sufficiency. He saw himself as the origin of all his goodness. If he had prayed properly, he, too, would have been on his knees and thanking God for having protected him from falling into evil ways. As the great St Augustine once said: “There go I, but for the grace of God.”

It is put very nicely in one of Prefaces for weekday Mass: “You [God] have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness but makes us grow in your grace.” There is absolutely nothing we can give to God. Whatever we do for him, we are simply giving back something he has already given us. The trouble with the Pharisee in the parable is that he felt that God should be grateful to him, that he was bestowing compliments on God by being such a ‘good’ person. Quite the opposite was the case.

So we have this paradox in the Gospel that it is better to be a repentant sinner than a self-satisfied prig. So much of Jesus’ teaching and works are with sinful people. It was for this he was severely criticised by the Pharisees. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1). But, how was Jesus to bring them back to God, unless he reached out to them? In the pharisaical mind (and that sometimes includes you and me!), they are just written off and, above all, their company is to be avoided completely.

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.”

God never sees the status of the person or their rank in society or their past behaviour. God – and Jesus – only sees the person who is before him here and now. That is the way he acted towards the prostitute woman who broke into the house of Simon the Pharisee and began crying at his feet. It was the way he acted with the man beside him on the cross, a man who had committed serious crime and may even have committed murder. To the Pharisee (be he a Jew, Christian, another religion or none) this attitude is inexplicable. But God’s ways are far beyond ours and in the Gospel we are constantly being invited to have the mind of God, a God who did not spare his own Son so that sinners (like you and me) might live.

Paul, a Pharisee, in the 2nd reading seems to be – or at least justify – boasting. But, remember there is also a kind of false humility to not recognize our good points or the good things we have done for others. False humility is also prideful.

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