By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Response: Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23; Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
The Lectionary returns us to a guidebook for young men to prepare them for a well-lived life. The author is Yeshua Ben Sira, or Sirach. The book is also known as Ecclesiasticus in older translations of the Bible. Our reading is part of a section that can be called the Justice of God the Judge. The headline, not included in our reading, is this: “Do not offer him a bribe. He will not accept.” Now that we know God is honest and incorruptible, what other qualifications does Sirach attribute to him? He is a God of justice. He knows no favorites. In other words, his justice is blind. Sirach suspects God might be just a little inclined to be more lenient toward the poor, but denies it. Still, he feels compelled to say that God does hear the cry of the oppressed. Next, we hear about God being a safety net for those without one – widows and orphans. All of this would have been a perfect fit to accompany last Sunday’s gospel reading — the persistent widow. Our reading omits the next verse, a verse that appeals for empathy toward the oppressed widow. “Do the widow’s tears not run down her cheeks, as she cries out against the man who caused them?
Sirach turns to prayer and its qualities. Those who serve God willingly are heard. Their petitions pierce the skies. Heaven is obviously up, as ancient cosmology indicated. Perseverance in prayer is praised; the prayer of the humble does not rest till it reaches its goal. Nagging God is OK. Prayer must not cease until the Most High responds. Three Sundays ago we heard the same lessons in an even more picturesque way from the prophet Habakkuk. After complaining about getting no response from God, he taunts the Lord, that he would mount a watchtower to make sure he does not miss a possible answer from on high. In conclusion, Sirach returns to the theme of God as a just judge, affirming what is right and assuring us of no delay. To understand that God does not delay, we will have to go to the Second Letter of Peter 3:8-9: “. . . with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow . . . as some count slowness.” That may be a clue to why it sometimes seems so long until our prayers are answered.
Psalm 34 continues the theme of the Lord’s justice toward the oppressed. The people’s response: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” He confronts evildoers and destroys even their memory from the earth. When the just cry out, he hears them and rescues them. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted. He saves those suffering depression. He redeems from slavery his servants, and no one needs be embarrassed when taking refuge in the Lord.
In this final reading from the Second Letter of Timothy, Paul reminds his friend of what he has suffered for the faith. “I am being poured out like a libation.” A libation was a liquid sacrifice (the blood of a slain animal), poured upon or dashed against the altar of sacrifice. Paul feels that his life on earth is at an end. He phrases the thought in athletic language, “I have competed well. I finished the race. I kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me….” In his court trial, no one came to his defense. All abandoned him. Only the Lord stood by him and gave him strength to proclaim the word before the heathens. He awaits a final rescue form the Lord, who will bring him safely into heavenly glory.
Luke introduces the parable in today’s gospel by telling readers at whom the parable was directed: “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” It is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both went up to the temple area to pray. The Pharisee took his position and prayed, thanking God that he was not like the rest of men – greedy, dishonest, adulterous “or like this tax collector.” He fasted twice a week. They fasted on Tuesdays and Thursday. He paid tithes on all his income. The Pharisee may have been an ideal civilian; but before God, he was obviously an arrogant, self-righteous sinner. The tax collector, working for the Roman government occupying the Holy Land, was a social outcast – and in the eyes of the public, a sinner. He stood at a distance, eyes humbly looking down, beat his chest, and prayed a very short prayer: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Either Jesus or Luke, or both, added the lesson of the parable. The tax collector’s prayer was accepted by God, not that of the Pharisee. An often-used proverb in the New Testament closes our gospel reading, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled (by God), and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (by God).”
Does this description of the Pharisee in the parable fit all Pharisees? Absolutely not! In the context of the time in which our gospels were composed, a battle was going on between the great scribes of the Pharisee faction and the scribes, leaders, teachers, preachers of the Christian movement. Part of the verbal-and-otherwise skirmishes between them was over converts (see, for example, Matthew 23:15 and Matthew’s seven curses against the opposition). Those who know the New Testament are familiar with the Christian view. The point of view of the Pharisee scribes is also seen in the New Testament from time to time (see Mark 3:22; John 8:41b, 48). More verbal assaults against Christians are found in a collection of scribal opinions called “the Mishnah.” So, we see the Pharisees as a corporate body vilified in our gospels. Corporate guilt is inherently unfair. There are shysters in most professions, but that should not condemn the whole profession. The corrupt judge in last Sunday’s gospel did not represent all judges. Little noticed is that Jesus had friends among the Pharisees. Examples: Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the Pharisees who warned Jesus of homicidal danger from Herod Antipas in Luke 13:31; the great scribe Gamaliel protecting the Christian movement in Acts 5:34-40; the Pharisees defending Paul in Acts 23:9. Most of them were good people intent on serving God and raising their families as devout Jews.