30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 27, 2019
Whenever, I hear a Bible story that involves a Tax Collector, I am reminded of when my sons were grade school age, and there was a time when our older son would come home from school and pick on and bully his younger brother. At first, we didn’t pay too much attention – ordinary sibling rivalry. But the behavior persisted and even intensified . . . and it was always right after he got home from school.
During this period, we had a family ritual at the dinner table of telling “stories about Jesus and his friends.” Most nights, Rene or I would tell a gospel story, in our own words, as best we could remember. It was our effort to introduce our sons to the Bible and beckon them into our faith practice.
So, we became concerned about how our older son was treating his younger brother. We sat down with him to talk about it. We asked, “What’s going on with you to behave this way toward your brother? It’s not like you. It’s not your nature.”
Turns out, he was being teased and bullied by a kid at school, which made him feel small and powerless. So, he would come home and bully and tease his brother so he could feel the opposite—big and powerful. Amidst this conversation, Rene had the wisdom and foresight to simply tell the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (which you will hear next Sunday). She told the story in a manner that Zacchaeus was a bully, cheating his fellow Jews out of extra taxes and getting rich. Then, he met Jesus, and changed his life from greedy, stingy bully to generous friend.
Well, this was one of those rare moments when our parental efforts hit the mark, and the story Rene told touched his heart, and he went right to his little brother and apologized and made up with him. And, with a bit of help from his mom and his teacher, the bully problem at school was solved as well.
Today, we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. And is designed to show us how to pray, and how not to pray.
Whenever Jesus tells a parable, there is always one or more characters with whom we are expected to relate, or identify with. In today’s Gospel, it’s clear we should pray more like the humble tax collector than the self-righteous Pharisee.
Yet to Jesus’ audience, and to the original readers of Luke, that would have been a questionable challenge. They would have looked at him, thinking, “Um, really? You want me to be like a tax collector instead of a pharisee?”
Let’s take a look at the two characters.
Pharisees were persons of upright standing, fully engaged in the life of the Jewish community, and highly respected. They were religiously active and faithful, financially generous, openly pious, and willing to take the lead on whatever needed to be done for the synagogue. If anything, they knew how to pray.
By contrast, tax collectors were bullies and traitors. They were fellow Jews working for the Romans, extorting tax levies by any means possible. Whatever amounts they didn’t have to hand over to the Romans, they kept. Some tax collectors became quite wealthy, like Zacchaeus. And when it comes to prayer . . . not a clue!
Jesus holds up the Pharisee, whom everyone knows as a person who does everything, and does it right, as NOT the person to emulate because he does it only for himself. His prayer is not directed to God at all, but rather a prayer of praise to himself. Further, he flaunts his influence, stature, and air of superiority. And therein lies his only satisfaction and reward.
Better to emulate the repentant tax collector, who knows he must change his ways, but is caught in a trap between the Romans and Jews, and honestly and sincerely does not know what to do. And so, in his prayer, he cannot even lift his eyes to the heavens. Head bowed in despair and remorse, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Of course, there is something of the Pharisee in us as we so easily compare ourselves to others. But there is also something of the tax collector in us, when we recognize our weaknesses and powerlessness—even over our ability to change—and give over to God’s mercy.
In reality, both characters can teach us something about the way we pray.
A sincere and prayerful reflection on these questions will lead us back to the beautiful, rich, and poetic prose of our first reading from Sirach . . .
The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
. . . and challenge us to accompany our prayer with works for those in need in order to bring true these words of Sirach.
In 1965, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived a cloistered life of seclusion, prayer, and solitude at Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky, made a rare excursion into Louisville, and had a significant aha, conversion moment on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district. He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
And in clear contrast to the self-centered and self-righteous prayer of the Pharisee, Merton uttered, ““Thank God, thank God that I am like other persons, that I am a person among others!”
May your prayer and mine be like that of Thomas Merton.