THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR C
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
The first reading takes us to the Old Testament version of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac — Yeshua Ben Sirach’s book of advice to prepare young Jewish men for a well-lived life. This section of the book emphasizes the justice of God versus the justice dealt out by crooked judges. He begins, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” So it seems, when one considers the drastic experiences endured by some of God’s closest friends, the Saints. The gospels, especially Luke, give the impression that God is partial to the poor and oppressed. Sirach has an answer for that impression, “He is not unduly partial toward the weak, but he does hear the cry of the oppressed.” Orphans and widows are always on God’s agenda throughout the Old Testament as the most vulnerable of all, “He is not deaf to the cry of the orphans, nor to the complaining widow.” All of the above would have been a good first reading to accompany last Sunday’s gospel story of the persistent widow.
Sirach moves on to groups other than the poor and the oppressed. “God hears those who serve him willingly, (with their whole heart). This echoes the Shemah, (the basic creed of any pious Jew), in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, etc.” Sirach’s next group: the lowly, the humble. “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds. It does not rest until it reaches its goal.” Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s gospel will illustrate this statement. We may ask why piercing the clouds sometimes takes so long? The Book of Daniel gives a quaint answer. An angel comes to help Daniel, and says,
“From the first day that you . . . humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard.” Then explains why the answer was delayed three weeks. He was engaged in a battle with the Prince of Persia, until Michael came by and replaced him. Just a temporary glitch in the system! Sirach returns to the opening thought, that God’s justice is just, “The Most High judges justly, and affirms the right, and will not delay.”
The Responsorial Psalm, 34, continues the theme of the Lord’s justice, especially toward “the lowly (humble), the righteous (living by God’s laws), the brokenhearted, those crushed in spirit.”
That about covers the groups mentioned by Sirach above. Like the Our Father, so the Psalm does not begin with our immediate needs, but with praise of God, “I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall ever be in my mouth.” Who of us could resist sweet talk like that? Apparently neither can God. Therefore the People’s Response, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”
The second reading is the last in a series of readings from 2 Timothy. This reading offers no further advice for Paul’s lieutenant Timothy. It is all about Paul in prison preparing to die. He writes, “I am being poured out like a libation. The time of my departure is at hand.” A libation is a liquid sacrifice, usually wine, which was poured onto or dashed against an altar. Next Paul displays his interest in sports, not unknown even among clergy today. “I have competed well. I have run the race. I have kept the faith.” He assures Timothy that a crown awaits him (no doubt thinking of the laurel wreath crown awarded to athletes). He mentions his first trial, a disaster, because “no one came to my defense. Everyone abandoned me.” Only the Lord stood by him, while he defended himself through a proclamation of the faith, so that all the pagans might hear it. He was rescued “from the lion’s mouth,” borrowing from Psalm 22:21, or referring to lions in an amphitheater. He closes with praise of God, “To him be glory forever and ever. Amen!”
The gospel reading is Luke’s well-known parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. A few words about each of these groups of people will help to understand the story. The Pharisees seem to have originated during the exile in Babylon — sixth century B.C. They advocated not only the strictest observance of the Torah (Mosaic laws), but also of the traditions that grew up around the Torah to protect the observance of it. They called it “putting a fence around the Torah.” When we read some of their interpretations of the Torah in our four gospels, we wonder how people could live all those regulations. Nevertheless, they were good people. Many became Christians, including Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul). Today they would find a home among conservative Catholics, though Paul might not. The reason for their bad reputation in our New Testament is this. When our gospels were composed during the last third of the first century, 70 to 95 A.D., they were the chief opposition to the Christian movement, which their scribes, the learned interpreters of the Torah, considered heretical. Therefore the “bad guy” in Luke’s story is a Pharisee. It should be noted, that when Pharisees are vilified in our gospels, it is not all Pharisees, but the great Pharisee scribes who opposed Christianity, as Paul did before his conversion.
Tax collectors, in most countries a necessary evil, were not despised because they were in this profession, but because they, fellow Jews, worked for a foreign occupation force, the Roman Empire. Their profession sometimes led to extortion. Jewish sources equate tax collectors with robbers, and in general as sinners. They and their families were excluded from holding civic office and disqualified from giving testimony in Jewish courts. Scribes taught that it was accept-able to deceive them. Luke is always for the underdog, the outcast, the despised. Therefore the “good guy” in this story is a tax collector. The Pharisee is depicted as arrogant, self-righteous, contemptuous of others. All of this enters into his prayer in the temple. The tax collector knows he is a sinner. In his prayer he admits it, but pleads, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” God loves humility because humility is truth and God is truth. Therefore the humble man’s prayer is accepted, but not the prayer of the arrogant man.