The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time||October 24, 2004|
Again today we have a parable that we've heard many times before. It's so familiar that we almost stop listening, because we know what's going to happen and the lesson that it's supposed to teach is also very clear. Jesus even starts off by saying he was telling this parable for those who thought they were righteous with God and were proud.
But we have to not just let this parable go by thinking that we already know all about it. If we take a little bit of time to probe it more deeply perhaps it will have even more of an impact upon us. There are a number of things about it that are minor, in a sense, but also help to make the lesson's truth more powerfully.
First of all I think when we hear the parable of two people who went up to the temple to pray, we probably think of a church like ours where people would come to make a visit and the church would be practically empty; it would just be two people that would be there.
There's a big difference between the two people, of course. The pharisee was someone who was looked up to by the people. All the pharisees were. Generally, because of how some things are spoken about in the scriptures, these passages are a case in point, we today think of pharisees as always being hypocritical. In fact, they were people who were sincerely trying to live out all the prescriptions of God's law for the chosen people. And so they were looked up to. They were esteemed as special people, going beyond the norm, as this man did. He was not giving a tenth of his agricultural produce, which is what the scriptures call for, but all of his income. He prayed on a very regular basis, and fasted not just once a week like everyone was required, but twice a week. He really was living a life of holiness, prayer, fasting and penance.
The contrast with the other person is stark, because he wasn't just a sinner, someone who failed once in a while, but his status in society, in fact, was that of a public sinner; someone who by his very profession, you might say, was living in sin. He was a tax collector, which meant that he was working for the Roman Empire, and the tax collectors were notorious for the way they were allowed to exploit the people; collect extra taxes to enrich themselves. But it wasn't just the exploitation; it was the fact that he was in daily contact with the Roman authorities, the pagans, that made him unclean even to come into the temple according to the prescriptions of the law.
So there was an extraordinary contrast between these two people. Then when they pray, their prayer is so different. Again, I think it's important to point out that the prayer of the pharisee in the sense of praising God and thanking God for what God has done in his life is not a bad prayer. All of us ought to do it some time: think about what God has done within your life, how God has led and guided you, watched over you, and then praise God for that. Thank God for that. That's exactly what Paul is doing when he writes to Timothy. "As for me the time of sacrifice has arrived and the moment of my departure has come." Paul gives thanks to God now because, he says, "I've been able to fight the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith, and so now I know that God, in God's goodness, has laid up for me a crown of righteousness and that God will fulfill me on that day when God takes me." Paul also recognizes that that is what God does for all people.
That was the prayer of the pharisee. In the beginning, at least. He ruined his prayer when he started to make comparisons and then drew the terrible contrast with this tax collector who was akin to, very much like, a pagan.
But the prayer of the tax collector is very notable also. It's very simple. He recognizes who and what he is and he begs God for mercy. In fact, I discovered as I was reading from commentaries about this passage, that the word that he uses when he says, "God have mercy on me, a sinner," that word for "mercy," this is the only time it appears in the New Testament. That particular word for mercy is related to the word for atonement. So what he is really saying is, "Let this sacrifice heal me. Let it's effect take place in me." He recognizes his need and he wants to be justified with God. Jesus, of course, says he is justified. That doesn't mean that now he is a saint, that now he has overcome his sinful situation. It means that he is developing a right relationship with God. To be justified by God means that you are developing a right relationship with God that will continue until you come into the fullness of that relationship with God in heaven. Jesus says, "He is justified. He is developing the right relationship with God."
The bishop from St. Cloud, Minn., in writing to his diocese said this: "I caution against allowing the Communion procession to become an occasion for pointing out these supposed sins of others. Please notice that the prayer that we recite before Communion says, 'Lord I am not worthy.' It does not say, 'Oh Lord, my neighbor is not worthy.' " We have to learn that lesson: look only in your own heart. We don't look into other people's hearts and try to decide who is justified and who isn't. That's up to God.
Another thing that we need to recognize as we reflect on this parable is how our prayer to God must come from an awareness of our need, an awareness of how God is really the one who oversees everything and guides everything. That means, I think, that we have to be careful not just as individuals, but also as a nation not to be arrogant in our attitude towards others.
I discover as I talk with people in various parts of the diocese and various parts of the country that there are many who look down on Muslims. We think that the Muslim religion, the Islamic religion, is one that fosters violence. But it doesn't. Not if you know it very deeply. Sometimes it seems that our national spirit is to put down the Muslims, people who follow the religion of Islam. To think that they're not quite as good as we are.
That is not true. God looks upon them with love just as God looks upon us with love. Their religion is a religion based on faith in God and God's goodness, God's love.
That kind of arrogance in our national spirit comes through in other ways, too. Some of you probably saw the article that was in the New York Times Sunday Magazine last week about the "faith-based White House." A thing based on faith, of course, is not something bad, but when you take this to an extreme and think that your relationship with God puts you in a very special place or gives you a special role, then it can be very dangerous.
There was one part of that article that I found especially disturbing. High officials in the White House said to the authors that people like you are, and this is his words, "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people, these are his words again, "who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality." In other words, you look at what's going on in the world and that's what you try to make your judgments about. But the person went on to tell the author, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." It's as though we've become God. We can take over the world. We can make reality whatever we want it to be. There's a kind of arrogance that surpasses that of the pharisee in the parable today. It's dangerous. It's a spirit that perhaps is taking hold in our nation, and we must end it, change it.
In a way I have experienced very personally what can be the consequences of such arrogance. It's not in my own personal life, but it's because of the relationships that I've developed. I feel very profoundly sad and discouraged, and fearful about Margaret Hassan in Baghdad who was abducted this past week. This is the woman to whom we often went to find out what was really happening in Iraq when I visited there. She had lived there 30 some years. She is an Iraqi citizen. Now she has been abducted, being threatened with beheading. The other day she was on television pleading for her life.
That happens, I think, because we have so damaged the relationship between our nation and other nations because we think we're acting like God. "We create reality. We make things happen."
I am also sadden and discouraged by another situation. Just three weeks ago, two and a half weeks ago, in Haiti, I saw Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste. You may have heard about him. (See the story in NCR Oct. 29.) He was in the process of feeding 600 people as he does in his church a couple of times a week. He feeds children. While feeding these people, armed, hooded police came in and attacked him. They even shot three of the children. Fr. Jean-Juste is now in jail. In a tiny cell with 36 people. He has been beat up, treated harshly and his life has been threatened.
Again this is the kind of violence and evil I think we've wrought in our world when we act in such an arrogant way as to think that we create reality. It's almost as though we are God. "We're an empire, now we create reality. We make the world."
It's important for us to listen deeply to the parable. Jesus tells each of us -- as individuals but also as citizens of this nation -- to go before God with a humble spirit. We can pray, "God have mercy on us, sinners."
If we can do that individually and as a nation, really develop that kind of a prayer spirit, then Jesus will be able to say about us, "We go on our way justified before God." Our relationship with God will be a right relationship. We're not perfect, but we're moving toward God, towards goodness, towards peace in our world and in our hearts.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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