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Only good people go to church. Oh yeah?

October 27, 2013

Sunday 27 October 2013

30th Sunday of the year (Luke 18:9-14)

As a boy my best friend’s Dad ran a pub. And when today’s gospel came up in church I was appalled, because instead of hearing about a ‘tax collector’, the translation we had then was about ‘a publican’. Jesus was criticising publicans! Oh my goodness, was I doomed for mixing with bad company, being friends with a publican’s son? Strangely, the sense of confusion and uneasiness I felt was precisely the effect Jesus wanted to achieve in people when He told this parable. Jesus message is all about turning the world upside down, about realising that God’s ways are not our ways, and that each of us has an urgent need to re-think our lives and our attitudes.

Of course, looking back I can see that I was alarmed by this parable for the wrong reason. It’s important that I recognise my own childish misunderstanding. As an adult I need to re-examine things with an adult mind. I can’t base my adult life on a child’s view of the world, otherwise I could be going off in completely the wrong direction. I need to continually update my understanding of my faith. That’s what the church means by adult catechesis – deepening faith through lifelong learning. So what’s an adult explanation of what’s going on here in today’s gospel? Those hearing Jesus would have been deeply shocked by His story. Tax collectors were hate figures. Think MPs expenses. Think bankers’ bonuses. Think Church abuse scandals. Think Jimmy Saville.

Who is going to stand up in public and say that these sort of people, exploiting and betraying innocent people will get a fair hearing and be at peace with God? Jesus did. And people didn’t like what they heard. Their reaction is understandable. Tax collectors had set themselves apart from God by their behaviour – they were dreadful sinners. Why, what was it they did. OK, being a tax collector is not the most popular of jobs, but hang on, I don’t think working for the Inland Revenue is an evil, wicked occupation. No, the problem was the way the tax collectors in Jesus’ time did their work. The Jews were living under foreign occupation by the Romans. A brutal, military regime. And the tax collectors were the worst type of collaborator with the evil, godless Roman Empire, which stood for the very opposite of everything that Judaism taught about worshipping the one true God. The Romans had privatized the tax collection system. They didn’t say publicly what the tax rate was, and entrepreneurs would bid for the right to collect tax for each tax district. The highest bidder got the tax-collecting franchise and was allowed to raise as much money as they liked, as long as the Romans got their agreed share of the money. So tax collectors would go round demanding money with menaces in what was basically an institutionalized, completely corrupt, protection racket. “Pay what I ask or I’ll hand you over to the Romans.” And the tax collectors made themselves very rich on the excess profits, in the midst of poverty. And so ordinary people hated them with a passion.

Tax collectors were beyond the pale, they were shocking sinners and the Jewish priests and religious leaders like the Pharisees said such treacherous sinners had no hope for of redemption. So those listening to Jesus’ parable would have been scandalized to hear Him criticize the Pharisees for looking down on a tax collector. The Pharisees were deeply religious, devout people. They knew their scriptures; they were always seen in the synagogue. They were pillars of good society.

What’s the problem with this devout Pharisee saying his prayers?

Listen carefully to the words used in the gospel: “The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself”

Standing wasn’t a big deal – everyone stood to pray. We often stand to pray because we have inherited this Jewish custom to show respect to God. But standing up in a prominent place with the intention of being seen so as to get other people’s respect is certainly not a good intention.

And the Pharisee stood there “and said this prayer to himself”. So the prayer was not directed towards God but was to himself, all about himself!

“I am not grasping” “I am not unjust” “I am not adulterous like the rest of mankind” “I am not like this tax collector here.” “I fast twice a week” (compared to the OT only requiring fasting on one day a year, the Day of Atonement ) “I pay tithes on all I get” (not just the portion identified in the OT )

In complete contrast, the tax collector stands far off. He doesn’t come forward to a prominent position. He keeps away from the regular worshippers. He doesn’t dramatically look towards heaven. With head bowed he beats his breast – an ancient sign of accepting fault – we still do it at mass: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”. No, the tax collector was afraid to come and mix with the regular worshippers. He didn’t feel that he was one of them.

In my experience that is very common amongst people who carry the burden of sin and who are genuinely sorry. They stay away from people like us. They don’t think they are worthy to come to church. They think we regular church-goers are good people. Oh how wrong they are, on all counts.

And how wrong we are if we’re tempted to look down upon those who don’t come to church as they should – what right have we, who so often, quietly and hypocritically, pay only lip service to our faith in our daily lives? What right have we to judge them?

How wrong we are when we make judgmental remarks about those who lead sinful lifestyles – who are we, people whose sin is hidden from view, but still sinners, who are we to judge them?

What can we do about this sad state of affairs, when we behave like that pharisee?

Firstly we can deliberately re-focus our prayers from ourselves towards others – we can pray for the intentions of those people who are in church with us, praying together as a church community, for their needs, for their good.

Do you realise that at the beginning of mass we often say a prayer together that deliberately says precisely this: “therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” As Christians we come together each week to pray for each other. Ask yourself, honestly, are you thinking about the meaning of these words in this familiar prayer when you say them? Do you deliberately then focus your prayer on those standing around you in church? Or is your prayer self-centred like the Pharisee (me, me, me)? I plead guilty to doing that sometimes.

The second thing we can do is to really concentrate on the prayers we are saying together. To the bidding prayers. And really do ponder on what the priest says during the Eucharistic prayers. They are full of tremendously relevant holy words that will impact on our daily lives in the coming few days. That’s why we are praying together. As the mystical Body of Christ, His Church.

Another thing we can do to avoid becoming Pharisees is to acknowledge ourselves as sinners. Although we may not be committing serious, obvious sins in our daily lives, this does not mean that we are somehow superior to the obvious sinners. And it certainly does not mean that we do not need God’s forgiveness.

We are by nature drawn towards sin, just as much in not doing what we ought to do as in the more obvious sins of doing what is forbidden. We humans cannot save ourselves. We rely on God’s mercy. Like the tax collector, we can bring ourselves into God’s presence and be truly sorry for our sins. That takes courage. And if we Catholics reject the sacramental forgiveness available, we are turning our noses up to something that God wants us to receive as a gift. It’s a strange, mysterious phenomenon, but regular absolution is a sure way to bring us closer to God, although we may not realise it. And a sign of being close to God is being truly humble and not realizing it.

Finally, when we see someone in church or in our daily lives, someone who is isolated, someone who may have hurt us terribly, or perhaps that person maybe sitting quietly at the back of church or eating alone in the canteen. Even people who have been rejected by everyone else for being different or for mistakes they have made in their lives, or people stereotyped and condemned, like refugees, drug addicts, even greedy bankers – we need to recognise that in the sight of God such people remain just as valued and loved.

And today’s gospel suggests that the faltering, clumsy, tongue-tied prayers of the people we reject are far more likely to be heartfelt, far more likely to be said in true humility, and so, far more pleasing to God than some of our own lukewarm efforts at praying.

The person on the edge, “standing some distance away”, like the tax collector, can be a good example to us of how to pray. Like Jesus, we should be reaching out to them, not rejecting them.

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