30 Sunday of the Year C
Sir 35:12-14, 16-18; 2Tm 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk 18:9-14
Introduction: This is a homily/Scripture reflection in a book, titled: ‘Every Week God Speaks We Respond’, Cycle C, intended to be published in the future by Reverend John Tran Binh Trong.
It was published in Vietnamese in the US 2008 and republished in Viet Nam 2011. To keep the author’s writing style, this homily has not been edited and may not be by a hired hand. However, if readers would like to point out mistake(s) in spelling and grammar and/or to suggest English phrases and expressions, it would be greatly appreciated by the author, whose English is not his mother tongue and who did not live in the US until his adulthood. Passive sentences are used intentionally in this context as to avoid using the first personal pronoun ‘I’ when applicable. That might be associated with any idea of egotism, in accord with the French saying, known as: ‘Le moi est haissable’ (The ego is detestable).
The two biblical figures in today’s gospel represent two kinds of people concerning their ways of prayer: the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees were a branch of Judaism. A Jewish historian by the name Josephus estimated there were about 6,000 Pharisees in the reign of Herod . They often criticized, accused and opposed Jesus and his disciples. On his part, Jesus gave the Pharisees warnings, calling them hypocrites because they wandered away from what is right and just and made people slaves to keeping the external traditions of their ancestors. They kept the external laws, but their hearts were far away from God, and they practiced injustices. Saint Matthew reserved the whole chapter 23 of his Gospel recording their hypocrisy and chastising them.
The tax collector collected taxes for the Roman government. The Romans did not tax people directly. They sold the right to collect the taxes to highest bidders at different posts. The highest bidders had to pay the Romans a certain determined amount of money. Usually the tax collectors collected more than the tax due and pocketed any surplus amount. Therefore, the tax collectors were looked down because not only they collected high taxes, but also collected taxes for the Romans who kept them under rule. The tax collector in today’s gospel was held in contempt in society and considered as a sinner. He was considered a traitor to the people and the state because he cooperated with the Roman colonialists.
The liturgy of the Word today tells us the Pharisee and the tax collector went to the temple to pray. However, there was a big difference in their ways of prayer and attitude. The Pharisee stood apart by himself in the temple reciting his prayers. He thanked God for his self-righteousness, not like the rest for their sins: grasping, crooked, adulterous or even like this tax collector (Lk 18:11). Then he praised himself for fasting twice a week and paying tithes on his whole income.
However, Jesus said his prayer was not pleasing to God. Why is it so? Prayer consists of repentance, worship, thanksgiving and petition. The words, which the Pharisee spoke to God, had the form of a prayer but they were self- praise. He did thank God, but his thanksgiving did not arise from his humility before God and dependence on him, but from his self-righteousness. He praised himself, seeing himself as an example of life and action and demonstrating a contemptuous attitude toward others. Saint Paul, before his conversion, was a Pharisee himself: arrogant, conceited, and fame- thirsty.
After the conversion, Paul changed completely. In his letter to Timothy today, his boast still sounds like a Pharisee’s prayer: I have competed well; I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me (2Tim 4:7-8). However, he now realized that his strength and achievements had come from the Lord when he wrote: The Lord stood by me and gave me strength (2 Tim 4:7). Different from the Pharisee, the tax collector stood at a distance, not daring to raise his eyes upwards, but beating his chest with repentance, asking God for mercy: O God, be merciful to me, a sinner (Lk 18:13).
Considered as a sinner for collecting heavy tax in order to get the surplus and considered belittled for collecting taxes for the Roman government, the tax collector was aware of his public sin that he asked God for mercy. He came before God empty handed, having nothing to be proud, except his sin of greed. Therefore, he felt the need for forgiveness from God. In his prayers, the tax collector admitted his sin, showing his humility and repentance. Therefore, Jesus said the tax collector went home justified (Lk 18:14). Thus, we can see a prayer, which is pleasing to and acceptable by God is the prayer of the humble and repentant. The reading from the book of Sirach today tells us about the Jewish belief in God’s ways for he hears the prayers of the humble, the oppressed, the orphans and the widowers (Sir 35:12-14).
Today each one of us needs to examine his way and spirit of prayer. If we find ourselves praying like: I thank you Lord, that I am not like this person or that person, I do not miss mass on Sunday, I do not cheat, I am not adulterous, then our prayer may sound like the Pharisee’s prayer.
In reality before God, we have no right to bargain with him on our behalf. We do not list our religious and charitable works in hope that God will deal with us generously and leniently. The simple and sincere Christian recognizes his/her need to repent his sin as to ask for forgiveness. Each one of us has sin, but always tries to reach perfection. That was the reason why Jesus came to call sinners.
When our relationship with God is still distant and impersonal, we tend to confess our sins vaguely and superficially, and to confess what we did wrong only. When our relationship with God has become close and personal, we will examine our sins more carefully even our sins in thought and attitude and we confess our sins of omissions such as those things we needed to do for God and others that we failed to do.
Prayer asking for humility when praying:
Oh meek and gentle Jesus.
Through those lessons of persons who humbled themselves
before people and before you, they often received favors
for what they asked for.
Grant that I may humble myself before you,
admitting my weakness and sinfulness
as to show my need for you and
to receive your favor. Amen.
John Tran Binh Trong
. McKenzie, J.L. Dictionary of the Bible. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965, p. 668.