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OCTOBER 27, 2013: THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Today's three readings perfectly dovetail with last week's.

Sirach sets the theme in the first sentence: "Yahweh is a God of justice, who knows no favorites." Since biblical justice revolves around having the proper relationships with God and one another, the author is saying, "Yahweh doesn't mechanically dominate and control us; Yahweh relates to us."

Of course, having a relating God creates some problems. Sirach mentions a couple. Yahweh's "not unduly partial to the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed. Yahweh's not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint." Our God starts the judgment process with people, not with rules and regulations.

Jesus' well-known parable about the Publican and Pharisee was meant to convey the same message. The Pharisee falls into the category of "super-Jew." His life revolves around keeping the 613 Laws of Moses. The Publican, on the other hand, is a traitor to his country and Judaism itself. Breaking dozens of those 613 regulations, he makes his living working for the Roman occupation forces. Most probably he's standing "off at a distance" in the Jerusalem temple because, as a notorious sinner, the religious authorities regard him as they would a Gentile, relegated as all non-Jews to the outskirts of this holy place. There's no way he can boast of any religious accomplishments.

While the super-Jew can remind Yahweh that he fasts twice and week and pays tithes on his whole income, the sinner "... would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'"

As with all parables, the "kicker" comes at the end. "I tell you, Jesus says, "the latter went home justified, not the former; for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

As any married couple can testify, keeping rules and regulations can never build a relationship; only honesty about oneself and the other can even begin to pull that off. That takes a lifetime commitment.

Perhaps that's why the Pauline disciple responsible for II Timothy zeroes in on Paul's determination to go to his death constantly building a relationship with the risen Jesus. "I am already being poured out like a libation," the writer's mentor insists, "and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."

Marcus Borg constantly insists in his book Speaking Christian that the original biblical meaning of belief has nothing to do with giving intellectual assent to rules and regulations or doctrines and dogmas. Belief revolves around "beloving." Our sacred authors presume we believe or have faith in someone, not in something. The believing person simply gives himself or herself over to that someone in a loving way.

Since March I've been thanking God every day that we have a pope who insists we, as a church, go back to the biblical idea of belief. Day by day Francis has been working at helping us refocus our religious priorities. Experts in church history constantly remind us that within two or three centuries of Jesus' death and resurrection, especially after Constantine's 313 CE Edict of Milan, we Christians began to lose our focus on building a relationship with the risen Jesus and those on the outskirts of society with whom he expects his followers to relate. Rules gradually became more important than people; regulations more important than relationships.

I pray Francis' reform succeeds. It parallels the reform Jesus preached to first century Judaism.