Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
October 23, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Sirach 35:12-14;16-18 | Psalm 34: 2-2;19-14;23
II Timothy 4:6-8;16-18 | Luke 18:9-15

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

I’ve been around church all my life, most of it either at the Altar or in the choir stall. I’ve been called a sacristy rat, a sacred music junkie, and a church mouse. You could say church is my natural habitat, just like the ice sheets of Antarctica are for penguins or the jungles of Africa are for monkeys. For as long as I can remember, I have been in church every Sunday and received Holy Communion every week since I was confirmed at nine years of age.  Church is home to me.

My involvement with church goes beyond participation in worship. I am constantly studying theology and scripture. I observe customary fasts and have donated a considerable amount of money to religious organizations.

Does God really think better of me because I do all that? I honestly don’t know. But today’s Gospel may give us a very small insight into how God looks at religious practices. I emphasize the word “may” because no one truly knows God’s mind.

I will be the first to admit that I’m more than somewhat like the Pharisee described in today’s Gospel because not only am I heavily involved in the church and do all the externals of Catholic Christianity, but I also have been guilty from time to time of looking down on people generally considered undesirable, like tax collectors were in the days of Jesus.

One of the things I discovered since I’ve been an ordained person over the last nearly eight years is that the world has high expectations of the clergy. We are expected to be one hundred percent perfect, one hundred percent of the time, and improve upon perfect. The world is quick to condemn imperfect clergy.

Not only does the world have high expectations of us, but we also have high expectations of ourselves and get depressed when we fail to meet them. The more prideful one is, the harder it is to accept failure. The truth is, however, that we are just as human as you are. Our minds and bodies operate just like yours does. And we are sinners, too, just like you are.

During his hidden life in Nazareth, and especially during his public life when he traveled through the towns and villages of Palestine, our Lord met sinners of all kinds. There is not a single record of a harsh word spoken by him to any of them. In fact, he was accused of mixing too freely with them. His answer was that “it was those who were ill who needed a doctor, not those who were in good health.”

The sinners he met knew that they were ill. They regretted their sins. He forgave them. There was one group, however, and only one, against whom he uttered condemnation and for whom he foretold an unhappy ending. These were the Pharisees. Jesus addressed today’s parable in the Gospel of Luke to them specifically by name.

One characteristic of self-righteous people like the Pharisee described in today’s Gospel is that they judge others who do not meet their standards. I’ve been guilty of this myself as I sometimes look down on clergy who can’t sing or who don’t wear the proper vestments to celebrate Mass. I, too, am a sinner.

Jesus does not put down the Pharisee for his fasting, his tithing, or his prayer life. What Jesus condemns, however, is the Pharisee’s attitude. All the things that Christians are supposed to do, like attending Mass, supporting the church financially, and observing devotional practices, are great. If that’s what you’ve been doing, go ahead and keep doing it. God loves you when you do all those things. But what God doesn’t like is for you to look down on other people who are not as enthusiastic about church as you are.

The First Reading today is from the Book of Sirach, part of the Wisdom literature in the Bible. Wisdom literature reflects the everyday application of scripture and tradition.  Wisdom literature is, in a nutshell, divinely inspired practical advice.

Chapter thirty-five of Sirach, from which today’s reading is taken, explains in detail that God loves everyone equally and judges everyone impartially. Unlike earthly judges or rulers, God cannot be bribed. There is no “in crowd” with God which deserves special treatment. Rather, God’s special concern is for those with a sincere grievance.  Our God is a God of justice. God hears the sincere cry of the poor and the oppressed.

 But the wisdom of the Bible is not only found in the wisdom books. It is found in the Gospels, too. Jesus is, in fact, a source of wisdom for the Church.  Today’s Gospel is an example of Jesus imparting practical advice to the Church. Jesus tells us to stop judging others and to be humble.

For sure, God doesn’t like the prideful behavior the Pharisees exhibit in today’s Gospel, not only because it’s a sin but because it is unwise.  Why is it unwise?

Prideful behavior distracts us from doing the things we, as Christians, should be doing. Instead, we waste tons of time and resources dealing with its after-effects, like issuing apologies for arrogant behavior and making amends for racism and sexism.

Prideful behavior hinders the mission Jesus gave us, that is, to preach the Gospel, to baptize, and to celebrate the Eucharist.

Prideful behavior deafens our ears to the cries of those in distress. We should be listening to those cries with our hearts and minds, not just our ears. We can’t do that if we are so wrapped up in our own pride.

Prideful behavior does not make friends and influence people. People don’t want to listen to those with overactive egos who expel insincere hot air. When it comes to prayer, God wants sincerity above all else.

In today’s Gospel, the relative sincerity of the prayers of the two main actors was as different as their social standing. The Pharisees were high-status people in the Jerusalem Temple. They were a powerful religious group that constantly opposed Jesus. They were scholars who constantly studied and interpreted the Law of Moses through a lens known as the “Tradition of the Elders.”

What exactly is “Tradition of the Elders?”

The Pharisees were passionate in their desire to obey God’s law. Over time, they developed an oral tradition. They called it “the tradition of the elders.” That tradition put a fence around the Biblical commandments. The idea was that obedience to the tradition of the elders would prevent a pious Jew from breaking a Biblical commandment itself.

The reality was, however, that the Pharisees erected a great many barriers of their own which were not part of the Law of Moses. Here’s an example.  The Book of Exodus implores us not to work on the Sabbath. The work of a physician is to heal. Therefore, the Pharisees say one should not heal on the Sabbath.

Jesus, however, did heal people on the Sabbath to illustrate the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who said it was OK to take care of farm animals on the Sabbath. This is a good example of a human religious regulation not found anywhere as such in scripture. Some Christians are guilty of the same kind of thinking, such things as prohibiting priests and bishops from marrying as the Roman Catholic church does.

But hypocrisy was the number one criticism Jesus had of the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t like people who were much more concerned with the outward appearance of piety and righteousness than with having a pure heart towards God. Today’s Gospel illustrates that contrast. The Pharisee in the Temple exhibited a self-righteous show of his religion, while the Tax Collector manifested a humble heart.

As in other stories this year we’ve heard from the Gospel of Luke, here we have yet another illustration of the Great Reversal, where those of higher status are put down while those of low degree are raised up. Great Reversal parables invite us to examine what our values are and how we live.  In this story, Jesus was quite explicit about his ultimate evaluation of these two individuals.

The Pharisee’s prayer embodies a way of living devoid of the relationships characterizing God’s realm: loving God and loving our neighbor. We cannot love God if we are full of ourselves. We cannot love our neighbors when we see only their shortcomings.  Scrupulous obedience to the law misses the forest for the trees.

Unfortunately, the spirit of the Pharisees continues in our day, not only in promulgating human-made laws as divinely given but ignoring God and exalting ourselves at the expense of those who are different from what we are. We all say, from time to time, “I thank you, God, that I am not like so-and-so.” I’ve heard this way of thinking applied to homeless people, immigrants, and the disabled. That mindset does nothing but dehumanizes other persons, all of whom were created in God’s image.

So, just who was this Tax Collector? And why was his occupation significant enough for Jesus to include it in this story? In the days of Jesus, Tax Collectors were nothing like today’s Internal Revenue Service. They were wealthy people who contracted with Rome to collect taxes. These entrepreneurs, some of whom were Jewish, paid a stipulated amount of money in advance in exchange for the right to collect taxes. They, in turn, hired local Jewish residents physically to collect the taxes. These underlings, along with their superiors, were despised in the Jewish community because of their collusion with the empire. They were traitors to their compatriots for profit. Not surprisingly, graft, theft, and corruption abounded among them. No self-respecting Jew in the society in which Jesus lives would associate with them. They were bad people.

Yet in today’s Gospel, Jesus thinks more of the low-status Tax Collector praying in the Temple than the higher-status Pharisee. Why? Because the Tax Collector demonstrated humility. Are you humble? Here’s a way to find out.

A quick test to see how humble you are, especially in a conversation with God, is to count how many times you use the pronoun “I.” When you talk to God, ask yourself: is it all about you and what you want from God? Or is your prayer time an opportunity to connect with God, express your love and adoration of God, confess your sins, share your heart with God, and confess your faults? If so, you are well on the way toward humility.

Here’s another way to test yourself. Humility is the opposite of pride, first in the traditional list of seven deadly sins. To determine whether you are proud or humble, here are some questions to ask yourself.

— Do we give as generously to charitable causes when no list of benefactors is published?

— Do we criticize those who are not all they should be?

–Do we thank God that we don’t have the same faults we observe in others?

–Do we always blame others for their failings without reference to their circumstances?

—Do we have excuses for our own faults?

When you are humble, you do not have to pretend to be something you are not.

When you are humble, you do not have to promote yourself to receive what you do not deserve, especially from God.

To paraphrase the Book of Proverbs, “God scorns those who scorn others but gives grace to the humble.” In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector demonstrated his attitude of humility even by his physical posture and position. He stood at a distance, not up front where everyone could see him. This man admitted he was a sinner; he needed God and God’s forgiveness. His prayer was for God’s mercy and forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, a sinner,” he prayed.

Admission of human weakness and failure is taboo in many cultures, particularly among men, who tend to avoid admitting their mistakes and are afraid to ask for help. Although it may not get you the approval of other people, it is significant to God. God is the one whose attention and approval that count. With God, whether other people approve of your asking for help doesn’t count for anything.

Jesus knows God’s mind and heart, but he no doubts shocked those listening to the parable he told in today’s Gospel. They thought the Pharisee would win God’s approval, but Jesus told them that the Tax Collector went home justified, that is, approved in God’s sight.

Today’s Gospel tells us that God accepts the humble and the needy, not the proud and disdainful.  The prayer of the humble man whose purpose in life is to serve God in all his goings and comings, in all his day’s work, will always be heard.

Today’s Second Reading is Saint Paul’s prayer toward the end of his life.  His prayer demonstrates the attitude we all should show in our lives. Like the Pharisee, he acknowledges his success. He has competed well; he has finished the course; he has kept the faith. Unlike the Pharisee, he acknowledges that God is the source of any good he has been able to accomplish. God stood by him and gave him strength. If there is any glory, it belongs to God alone. As we shall shortly be singing, God is king of glory and king of peace.

We know that God accepts, forgives, and saves sinners by grace through faith. And by faith, I don’t mean acknowledging the existence of God. There is no need to acknowledge God’s existence because God exists independently of what anyone thinks. All you need do is look at the sun outside. It would not be out there shining but for God. By faith in God, I mean trusting in God as the one being who will always be there to love you and care for you. God has accepted, forgiven, and saved us.