Homily for the thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C 2019
Our strength is what we are good at. It can be our talents, our potentials and our achievements. Our strength can also be moral excellence like virtues, or some spiritual good like prayer and spiritual work of mercy, etc. In the Gospel reading from Luke 18:9-14, the Pharisee has many strengths. Obviously, he was a man of prayer. He was a man who separated himself from sin in order to give himself totally to God – from the Hebrew Perushim. He was morally upright.
In many ways, he was a holy man according to the Law. One would have expected Jesus to say of him, “He went home again at rights with God.” But Jesus did not say that of him. Rather, He said it of the tax collector, one who in literal terms was a public sinner. He might have tampered with the books, extorted money from the poor, and he might have even sent innocent people to prison. He was unjust. To say the least, he was a man of very low morals.
With this background, one only wonders why is it that it was the tax collector that went home again at rights with God? It is Luke’s thing. He is good at portraying the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God as a reversal of earthly kingdoms and values. The rich and the poor, the self-righteous and the sinner, switch places. It is the sinner, the man who “stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven”, that went home forgiven, healed, and restored to sonship.
His weaknesses, his sins became his strength. They brought him to his knees and made him to realise he was a sinner in need of the Saviour. Thus, he prayed to God and not to himself like the Pharisee did. He also realised that he was not his own creator. As such, whoever he had become was not beyond the Creator’s act of redemption. In the light of Dante’s, The Divine Comedy, his weaknesses were like bulldozers that pressed him to the ground and kept him in touch with reality.
So, the tax collector was real. He trusted God and he was in love with God. He was so in love with God that he ‘stood naked’ before Him and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” On the flipside, the Pharisee, even though he had done the right things by the Law, was insecure. He couldn’t trust. He had to prove himself. Why? He was simply complying with God’s laws without loving Him. As a result, he had to dress himself up before God to look good.
He was his own creator. No wonder “He stood there.” This is an interesting detail Luke gives in the Gospel. It means he sets himself up in the place of God. He arrogated to himself God’s prerogatives. Thus, he had no need to pray to God. So, according to Luke, “He stood there and said this prayer to himself…” This is pride. It is a stage in which his strength of prayer slipped into his weakness of character. He presumed he was saved and had no need of God.
There is another detail that Luke puts before us in the Gospel, “… and despised everyone else.” This is arrogance. It comes from an attitude of comparing oneself to others. It is disordered self-love. It is one of the causes of mental health issues in our society. Some parents are good at comparing their children with other children. The consequences are damaging. It makes children anxious, and as G. K. Chesterton puts it, ‘It dries up laughter, dries up wonder….”
Come to think of it, how on earth can we enjoy our achievements when we are constantly trying to outperform others? The truth is we become uptight, easily angry and very unforgiving. We become judgemental, putting other people down. “I thank You, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here.” St. Teresa of Calcutta puts it this way, “When we start judging, we stop loving.”
This was the problem of the Pharisee. He could not love his neighbour. He could not see beyond his neighbour’s faults and sinfulness. He was stuck on the tax collector’s sins. As a result, he could not see a brother in the tax collector. One who was struggling, powerless and drowning. All he could see was a competitor, one he has to outperform by keeping the Law. Jesus challenged this attitude in Luke 7: 36-44 when he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman.”
Perhaps, there are times when we too have behaved like the Pharisee in the Gospel. Times, when we feel because we have done X Y Z therefore, we are better than the fellow over there. Times, when we have stopped loving, stopped forgiving our brothers and our sisters because all we see and know of them is their mistakes, failings and sins. Times, when we look down on others and even destroy their reputation in a bid to dress up and make ourselves look good.
In many ways, this story of the Pharisee is the story of Adam and Eve after the fall. It is a story of hiding away from God, turning against the other in order to justify oneself. “It is the serpent that tempted me… it is the woman You gave me…” But the tax collector points us to the Now Time, the time of redemption when the Son has revealed the Father to us and has sent us the Holy Spirit to lead us to all Truth. The Truth that we are fathered and loved by His own Father.
So, like the tax collector, we can come to the Father, knowing we are loved. Not trying to dress up to impress Him but coming to Him as we are; standing before Him naked; and allowing Him to be Our Saviour – Healer. St. Paul captured this in the Second reading when he said, “My life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone.” That is, to let go of our old self so that God’s strength which does not degenerate into weakness can reign in us.
Fr. Francis Afu