October 23, 2016
XXX Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Last Sunday, the Gospel made us reflect on the theme of justice: the righteousness of God that is not as we understand. We men see it as a retribution that punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. But it is the fulfillment of a plan of love, of knowing also how to draw good from evil, even life from death; and as we will see today, making the sinner a righteous man.
Indeed, the theme today is also of justice, as well as of prayer. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who go up to the temple to pray is addressed by Jesus to those “who were convinced of their righteousness” (Luke 18: 9 ); and the parable ends with the tax collector and not the Pharisee, who “went home justified (Lk 18:14).
In his Gospel, Luke often introduces two characters to offer two different approaches, two different ways of being in the world, to meet Jesus: we encountered Simon the Pharisee and the sinner (Lk 7:36-50), Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42).
Today we meet a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both are doing the same thing: they go up to the temple to pray; but they do it in a completely different way.
Physically, the Pharisee appears (standing straight) sure of himself. But the tax collector in contrast, stays away beating his chest. In reality, however, before God, they have an opposite attitude. The tax collector goes to the temple to show himself to God, to let the Lord set his eyes on his misery. The Pharisee instead, goes up to the temple to hide, mainly behind two attitudes.
First he hides behind his works, behind the perfection of these works; behind his observance of the law: “I fast twice a week, I pay tithes on all that I gain” (Luke 18:12). This wall that he sets up between God and himself prevents him from seeing the Lord, and to be seen by Him, because he only sees himself. It is sad to see that the only thing he knows to say (and even before he can see) of his the relationship with the Lord is how many times he fasts and how much he pays…
And then the Pharisee hides behind “other men”, he judges everyone without exception, as “greedy, dishonest and adulterous” (Lk 18:11), that for him, the tax collector perfectly represents.
One would think that the Pharisee is afraid of being “like other men” (Lk 18:11), as if belonging to a common human brotherhood can take anything away from his dignity; or as if he is afraid of limits, of evil, of sin, and he is going to deny himself from entering the circle of the pure and perfect who do not need anybody, not even God and his mercy.
On the contrary, one who is not afraid to show himself to God in his weakness, he usually does not need to disgrace anyone. He knows he does not deserve anything, and he knows that God’s mercy is free and is for everyone. It is the attitude of the tax collector.
Strangely, purity and perfection often come with hardness of heart. What is immediately striking is the context at the beginning of the parable, in verse 9, where the evangelist tells us that it is “addressed to those who considered themselves righteous and despised everyone else”. And what is dissonant is the conjunction “and” which marks the stark contradiction between their so-called justice and their final judgment of others. One would expect that just because they consider themselves righteous, they have a good and merciful heart. But this is not the case.
In short, this story shows us once again the concept of justice.
If justice is the observance of a law, salvation can be earned, then it will be easy to measure all others and find something wrong.
With Jesus it is not the case. Justice is the free and liberating forgiveness given to those who come to God with a humble heart; and it is the intimate experience of this unconditional love that has the power to change our lives.
Instead the Pharisee became unjust precisely in prayer, and does something dramatic and sad. It is not so much about the sins that make us unjust if these lead us to humility and the experience of God’s mercy, that our presumed holiness, our good works and even our prayer, if not born of a poor heart, and capable of laying bare before God.
It is only by acknowledging our sin that we recognize God’s goodness, his truth, his justice.
Nobody is just before God. Only his mercy and forgiveness will keep us in his presence