In my absence the past two weeks, Pastor Dick Dahl has been standing in for me and has given us two wonderful homilies to reflect upon. Look for them here in two separate postings. Thanks so much Dick–my gratitude! –Pastor Kathy
Thanks to an invitation from Jim Hanzel several months ago, I now meet with a small group of men every Wednesday morning to read and discuss the scripture readings for the coming weekend Mass. This past Wednesday when we talked about the implications of today’s Gospel, one of the men said, this is an interpretation you will not hear preached in any of the Catholic churches in town this Sunday. I said, well it will be preached in one of them—at All Are One.
So let’s consider this reading from today’s Gospel according to Luke. First of all, it only appears in Luke’s Gospel. Why did he think it so important to include it when Matthew and Mark did not? We may get a clue in the first verse. Until it was pointed out to me in our discussion Wednesday, I had not noticed that this passage does not begin with the words of Jesus, but rather with the words of Luke, namely, “He (Jesus) addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” After this the words of Jesus begin as indicated by quotation marks.
We must ask ourselves, “How do I fit in here?” We are given two people to compare ourselves to. The Pharisee was a religious man. He was educated and well versed in the Scriptures, including the words of Ben Sira which were read to us in today’s first reading. The Pharisee followed the advice of Ben Sira to keep the commandments. As he proudly professed to God, ‘I am not like others who are greedy, dishonest, adulterous.’ In fact, he went on to say not just what he did not do but what he did do. He fasted twice a week, paid tithes on all his income. In other words he even went beyond what the Law required.
The other person was a tax collector. He did not collect taxes for the Jewish temple, but for the Roman government that was occupying Israel. Many people despised him because he could be viewed as a traitor, one who made a living off helping the enemy. Furthermore, many tax collectors put their thumb on the scale as it were and took an extra share to pad their own pockets.
This man, however, “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Once again, where do we fit in? Some Catholics may think, “I oppose abortion and homosexuality, therefore I am pleasing to God.” Or some may think, “I avoid serious sins, I go to Mass every Sunday, and I contribute to the church and other charities. Thank God I am not like those who rarely come to Mass and especially those who don’t even believe in God.” Others yet may think, “There are a lot of bad people in the world. God, I thank you that I am not like them.”
Now, however, we hear Jesus’ words about the two men: “ I tell you the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
What may have seemed clear upon first hearing this story may now seem less clear upon reflection. Why did Jesus not praise the Pharisee for his good works? Why exalt the tax collector whose behavior may indeed have left much to be desired?
I suggest that there are two lessons for us to chew over from this reading. First of all is out attitude toward ourselves. Jesus is speaking to us about our attitudes, not our actions. His words reflect the perspective that we express in the prayer we say before Communion, “Lord, you make us worthy to receive you, and by your word, we are healed.”
In other words, avoiding sin, doing good works, participating in Mass and prayer all make sense when these acts are a response, a response of deep gratitude for the love and mercy God has first shown to us. But it isn’t what makes us worthy. God’s unconditional mercy and love, which we call Grace, does that. As important as our actions are, Jesus and Luke his evangelist are stressing the importance of our attitude.
The second lesson this story calls us to consider is our attitude toward others. Despite all the good works the Pharisee did, he despised others and judged them to be inferior to himself. When put that bluntly, I think that most of us would recoil at the thought of doing so. However, when we step back and search our own actual attitudes, we may discover a similar tendency in ourselves. Just as the Pharisee had reasons to criticize the behavior of the tax collector, we find ourselves having good reasons to be critical of the attitudes and actions of those we don’t agree with—especially in politics today, but perhaps in other areas of life as well.
Like Ben Sira, Jesus again and again calls for justice and mercy in the treatment of the poor and less powerful people in our lives. But even when we do our best to follow his words, he warns us not to think we are any better than those we serve, but to view ourselves as blessed to be able to do what we can.
I end with a somewhat lengthy quote from a meditation Father Richard Rohr posted a week ago in which he shared the following story by Tim Shriver, a Chair of Special Olympics. Special Olympics, as you know, works with many people whom our culture excludes or disregards. Through their eyes Tim has come to see God’s presence in every human being. As you hear Tim’s words, reflect if you stand in solidarity with any who exist “on the edge,” folks who have been excluded, and if you see those individuals through God’s eyes.
Tim writes, “You cannot believe in or practice unitive consciousness as long as you exclude and marginalize others—whether it is women or people of different sexual orientations or people of religious or ethnic minorities or, in my experience, people with intellectual disabilities. My work,’ he says, “ is largely with and in support of people who have significant vulnerabilities because of intellectual disability. In many cultures these people are excluded and oppressed, though often unconsciously, even more so than other marginalized groups. . . . They are thought to be hopeless. Mostly they are ignored and forgotten.
Tim goes on, “For twenty years I have been mentored by these same people. Some might not be the best-spoken, the most articulate writers, the most celebrated thinkers, the fastest runners. And yet, despite all of that, I have met person after person who emanates a kind of radiant light. After a while, even the densest of us may have our eyes opened to that something which transcends all superficial distractions of disability: the unimaginable beauty of every person. That beauty is ours for the seeing if only we have the eyes to see, if only we pay attention.
Tim goes on, “I try to maintain those eyes as I engage in this work. At times I will pull myself out of whatever I’m doing and try to remember that I’m united with all that is. I give myself license to step away and reconnect. I fail mostly, but once in a while I succeed, and when I do, I feel like I am touching a “sweet spot” of wonder and peace. It enables me to be present to people in a way that I can communicate to them that I love them unconditionally. There are no conditions to our unity, to our oneness.
Finally, he concludes, “Many times I’ve watched, for instance, as a person with Down syndrome stands with a gold medal around her neck, arms raised high to a cheering crowd. I can’t look at that child, at that human being, without slipping out of dualistic thinking. Those moments are a kind of sacrament of unitive consciousness. They are “both-and” moments where shadow and light coexist in the same experience. . . . Divine energy shoots vertically through me like a force, and says, ‘See! Look! Pay attention to what is right in front of you! That is all you need to know!’”