The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.
I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day, and not only to me,
but to all who have longed for his appearance.
At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf,
but everyone deserted me.
May it not be held against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
And I was rescued from the lion's mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.
To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Last week’s readings zeroed in on the relationship expected of all people of faith with God. A life based on faith demands we relate with God, not try to control him/her. Today’s gospel passage outlines the first step in building and maintaining such a relationship: honesty.
No two people could be further apart on a 1st century CE Palestinian religious scale than a Pharisee and a tax collector. The former was akin to a “super-Jew,” spending his life studying, teaching and keeping the 613 Laws of Moses. Everything he did revolved around those Sinai regulations. Scanning his temple competition, he could logically say, “I’m not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”
The latter, on the other hand, really didn’t give much thought to those Mosaic precepts. As a collector of taxes, he centered his life on a different value system. He would have daily done things forbidden to main stream Jews. The money he so faithfully amassed went not to his fellow Jews, but to his country’s enemies: the Romans. A traitor to his people, he helped keep their oppressors in power. And he usually acquired those taxes by “immoral” means: extortion, blackmail and strong arm tactics. He not only was hated by everyone, but because of his profession, he constantly was at odds with the very regulations the Pharisee esteemed. Though tax collectors weren’t forbidden under pain of death, like Samaritans, to enter the temple precincts, his presence in that sacred space would have surprised other worshippers. “What’s someone like that doing in a place like this? There goes the neighborhood!”
Yet Jesus praises this religious scoundrel at the same time he brushes aside the religious perfectionist. Out of the two, the tax collector alone leaves “justified:” doing what Yahweh wants him to do, simply being honest about himself. His only prayer is, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Unlike the Pharisee he doesn’t compare himself with anyone else. He just zeros in on his own moral condition.
If all valid relationships revolve around giving ourselves to others, they can only work when we begin the process by being honest about who it is who’s actually doing the giving. Yet we “fake it” so often during our encounters with others, that we also fall into that same trap when we’re really trying to build relationships with significant others. Luke’s Jesus reminds us that faking it with God in a no-no. God simply expects us to tell him/her who we really are. That’s a given.
Sirach, in our first reading, encourages us not to worry: God treats everyone with total impartiality. Yahweh is a God of justice: a God of relationships. He/she gives everyone an even break. If our relationship isn’t working, it can only be because we’re holding back from giving our true selves to God, often because of something embarrassing in that true self.
The unknown author of II Timothy has no problem conveying his insights into Paul’s personality, even when they suggest some of the Apostle’s weaknesses. Though he’s writing about a larger than life figure, he doesn’t hesitate to get down to the nitty gritty. Paul certainly wasn’t the kind of individual who appealed to everyone. “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.” Some of us would also pause before stepping forward to defend such a radical person of faith. Paul wasn’t perfect.
Perhaps that’s why he, like us, constantly falls back on his relationship with the risen Jesus: the one person who presumes we’re not perfect, and is grateful whenever we admit it.