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Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. From now on there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me on that day; and not to me only, but also to all that have longed for his appearance.
At my first defence no one took my part, but all forsook me.
May it not be laid to their account. But the Lord stood by me and
strengthened me; that through me the message might be fully proclaimed,
and that all the Gentiles might hear. And I was delivered out of
the mouth of the lion. The Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and
will save me unto his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and
Jesus spoke this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised all others.
"Two men went up into the temple to pray; one a Pharisee, and the other a publican (tax collector). The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get.'
But the publican, standing far off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be thou merciful to me a sinner.'
I say unto you, this man went down to his house justified rather
than the other; for every one that exalts himself shall be humbled; but
he that humbles himself shall be exalted.
* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions againsst Iraq.
has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published
numerous articles and reports.
** Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.
For your convenience, the
Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the
Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright ©
1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.,
may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic
|The parable that
we hear in today’s gospel is one of those parables that we are so familiar
with. We have heard it so many times that it all seems absolutely clear
to us. So, as we begin to reflect on this parable, perhaps it’s a
good thing for us to first of all try to put ourselves back into the circumstances
in which the people who first heard this parable were when Jesus spoke
At the end of the parable, in another account of the gospel, Jesus says, “Which of the two went home justified?” Back then, almost without a doubt, everyone would have said the Pharisee. The Pharisee was the one who was justified. After all, this Pharisee had fulfilled all the law. In fact, he had even gone beyond what the law required. For the people of Jesus’ time, that’s what was necessary. Fulfill the law. The law will make you holy, make you justified in the sight of God.
So it would have been a shock to those people to hear Jesus say, “No, not the Pharisee.” The Pharisee was not the one who is really holy. It was that tax collector, the one who disobeyed the law, the one who had become unclean so that he wasn’t even qualified to go into the temple to pray. He had associated with the pagans. He had assisted in the carrying out of the Roman law of collecting the taxes. He was unworthy. And yet Jesus says to his people or his hearers who would have been shocked, that’s the one who is really holy. And of course we get a clue to this interpretation of the parable when Luke tells us at the beginning that Jesus told this parable to people convinced of their own righteousness, those who looked down on others.
So we have from Luke the clue to what Jesus is really getting at. Yes, we can fulfill all the proscriptions of the law. We can carry out everything in a perfect fashion. And yet, what if we do this in a spirit like the Pharisee? The Pharisee, who in his prayers keeps saying, “I did this. I did this. I did this.” Who thought himself fully justified, who was so confident of his own goodness that he doesn’t even turn to God in prayer really. He just proclaims his own holiness, his own righteousness. He doesn’t need God. He doesn’t need anybody else almost. Whereas, the other person knows his need of God. He knows he depends upon God in everyway. He’s ready to come before God and just simply say, “Have mercy on me. I know I need your goodness, your love.”
And even though we’ve heard this parable so many times in the past and, perhaps, have quickly come to a conclusion as to how we need to apply it in our own lives, I think it’s important to realize that every time we hear the gospel we are in a different place even though the parable is in the same. We are in a different place. And, maybe, if we listen very deeply, we’ll hear it a little bit differently this time.
I know that in my own reflection on this parable, that in a personal way, I was conscious of being in a different place as I tried to listen to the parable. Also, if we apply this parable to our national situation, certainly we are in a very different place from where we were three years ago when we heard this parable the last time.
In my own personal reflection on the parable, I was very aware that during the past few weeks, I have been in conversation with and ministering in a way with people who are dying. And it comes through very clearly to me, or it has come through very clearly to me, how different everything is when you begin to realize you are going to face God in death.
In our lives so often, don’t we go along thinking of ourselves as being OK. We don’t need other people. In fact, that’s almost our culture. Be self-sufficient, be independent, be strong, be on your own.
We’re almost like that Pharisee. We don’t need God. We don’t need other people. Until you get to that point where you know all that you’ve built up about yourself, the good appearance that you have, the strength that you show and so on, it really doesn’t mean very much when you know you’re going to be all alone facing God. Then you know you need God. I’ve also discovered that people begin to realize even more deeply how much they need other people.
I read this week an account of a Jesuit priest, Father Walter Burghart, who was celebrating 70 years as a Jesuit. And he was looking back over those seven decades. He, of course, is 80 some years old, so he knows that death is not too far off. And as he looked back he says, “You know what I realized, what really nourished me all those years were not just the times I celebrated Mass, not the times I celebrated other sacraments and so on. What nourished me were relationships. As I entered into loving relationships with other people, I loved them. They loved me. That’s what’s really important in my whole ministry, in my whole life. I needed other people and I could become vulnerable to them, open to them. And they loved me and I loved them.”
Isn’t it a shame, in a way, that it takes us so much time, I think, almost until we face death, for us to realize how important relationships are in our lives. That we do need other people, we need God, we need to be loved, we need to love. It’s the only way we grow as human beings.
And so the attitude of the Pharisee was so wrong because he was cutting himself off from people. He didn’t need anybody. He didn’t even need God. And so what we have to learn from this parable, if we will, is how important it is to develop these loving relationships in our lives, to nurture them.
Father Burghart says, “It’s relationships, relationships, relationships. That’s what really counts.” It’s so important not to let ourselves get to that point of being so strong, so independent, and so self-sufficient, that we don’t need anybody. We do. And if we allow ourselves to admit that and really allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be open, we will be loved and we will learn to love. And that will make us whole people.
And the same thing I think is true, in a way, if we listen to this parable in relationship to what has been happening in our country over the past five or six weeks. Because I think here, too, we as a nation have been too quick to be self-sufficient, to think we know the answers, to think we know exactly what needs to be done.
It was put so plainly a few years ago by our former Secretary of State when she said, “If we have to use force, it’s because we are America, we are the indispensable nation, we stand tall, we see further into the future.” And so immediately, we use force, we know the answer, we know what to do.
It’s a kind of arrogance. And I was really impressed in a way with how arrogant that is. And how much we are like that Pharisee. We’re ready to act. We’re ready to show how strong we are. We’re ready to use force. We’re going to straighten out this world somehow.
How wrong that was became clear to me when I received a copy of a letter that Rigoberta Menchu wrote to President Bush after he made his speech to the Congress the week or so after the attack against us. Remember who Rigoberta Menchu is? She’s a peasant woman, someone who never went through eight grades of elementary school. She’s an indigenous person from Guatemala. She received the Noble Peace prize because she had become such an extraordinary leader within her own community and helped to work for justice and peace in that nation of Guatemala. And so she’s like this publican or tax collector who is sort of on the margin of life, as opposed to the United States President who is the most powerful person in the world. That Rigoberta Menchu dares to write to our President and says,
“In the first place, I want to repeat to you the solidarity and condolences I expressed to all your people on Tuesday, September 11, when I became aware of the painful occurrences that had taken place in your country, as well as to share my indignation and condemnation of the threats these acts of terrorism constitute. Nevertheless, Mr. President, upon listening to the message you gave to the Congress of your country, I have been unable to overcome a sensation of fear for what may come of your words.
You call upon your people to prepare for a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen, and for your soldiers to save their honor by marching to a war in which you intend to involve all of us, the peoples of the world.
In the name of progress, pluralism, tolerance, and liberty, you leave no choice for those of us who are not fortunate enough to share this sensation of liberty and the benefits of the civilization you wish to defend for your people. We, who never had sympathy for terrorism, knowing we were its victims. We, who are proud expressions of other civilizations, who live day to day with the hope of turning discrimination and plunder into recognition and respect, who carry in our souls the pain of the genocide perpetrated against our peoples and, finally, we, who are fed up with providing the dead for wars that are not ours.
We cannot share the arrogance of your infallibility, nor the single road onto which you want to push us when you declare, ‘That every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’
The role of your country in the present world order is far from being neutral. Last night, we hoped for a sensible, reflective and self-critical message. But what we heard was an unacceptable threat.
I agree with you that the course of this conflict is not known. But when you declare that its outcome is certain, the only certainty that comes to me is that of a new and gigantic, useless sacrifice of a new and colossal lie.
Before you cry fire, I would like to invite you to consider a different kind of world leadership, one in which it is necessary to convince rather than to defeat. In which humanity is able to demonstrate that in the last thousand years we have surpassed the meaning of an eye for an eye, and that there is no need for new crusades in order to learn to respect those who have a different conception of God and the work of God’s creation. In which we would share in solidarity, the fruits of progress, taking better care of the resources still remaining in the planet, and that no child lack bread and a school. With hope hanging by a thread, I greet you attentively.”
She signs it, Rigoberta Menchu. September 23, 2001.
Now I ask you to think about that contrast. This poor peasant woman, one who has experienced the horror of terrorism in Guatemala where over 200,000 people have been slaughtered in the last 40 years, where she pleads for an opening up to other people, to learn to respect the dignity, the rights of all, to find a different way to show leadership in the world than simply by using military force, to be humble, to be open, to be receptive, to listen, rather than just to pronounce, to proclaim infallibly and with a kind of arrogance, “If we have to use force, it’s because we are America, we are the indispensable nation, we see further than anybody else.”
What a contrast, the simple peasant, who I think is like the publican in the gospel lesson and our President, who is more like the Pharisee: “We will solve all these problems the way we know how, through force.”
We must ask ourselves the question that Jesus asks at the end of the parable, “Who do you think is really justified in the sight of God?” Who is really following the way of God? The peasant, who is marginalized and on the outside, or the President, who thinks we are so strong that we can do whatever we want in the world, and that somehow, through that, we will bring peace. Who is justified? Who is following the way of God?
To me, it seems pretty clear that we can learn from the poor of this world. That if we listen to them and to the sufferings that they have experienced over so many decades and listen to them as to how we resolve the problems on our planet, I think, then, we really could find a way to solidarity, to a unity among the peoples of all nations, to find a way to peace. So perhaps we must learn from the example of the poor and the marginalized. Learn to be humble. Learn to find a different way of leadership in our world and, through that, have confidence that God will lead us to peace.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyrighted 2001 by The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
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