Judgments about who is the best, the ‘highest’, of most worth – and about what God’s judgment will be on someone – is as common now as when the Bible was written. We live in a society where we see all around a focus on celebrity, winners or losers, ‘ranking’ almost anything, and many marks of status such as titles, nobility, honours and prizes. Today’s readings ask us to reflect on what are God’s evaluations.
Ecclesiasticus/ Sirach 35:12-14, 16-19
First some clarification on the name and the history of this book. Some bible translations use Ecclesiasticus, based on Latin, which probably means something like ‘church book’. The alternative name ‘Sirach’ comes from the author – who rare among Bible books – has given us his name, Jesus Ben Sira. He wrote in Jerusalem around 180 BCE in Hebrew. His work was translated into Greek by his grandson as explained in the opening of the book. It was not accepted into the Jewish or Protestant canon because written later than most of the Hebrew books, but is part of the Catholic-Orthodox canon as one of the ‘Deuterocanonical’ books. It carries on the ‘Wisdom’ tradition of Israel, opening with praise of Wisdom as a gift of the Lord. Our selection on prayer compliments the Gospel reading.
If you are reading a different translation, note there may be a difference in the numbering of the verses. If you are using a Protestant translation, the book may be missing or in a section called ‘Apocrypha’.
The message: Unlike so many people then and now, God does not pay more attention or give favoured treatment to those often considered famous or important. He listens especially to those who have been wronged, or who are in special need. In Ben Sira’s society widows and orphans were not often provided for, and they stand throughout the Bible as representatives of the most poor and oppressed. The next verses echo last week’s parable urging persistence in prayer and the words about the prayer of the humble lead us to today’s Gospel.
Psalm 33/34:2-3, 17-19, 23
This is a psalm written in the Wisdom tradition which fits well with both the previous reading and what we will hear from Luke.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
We end several weeks of selections from the Second Letter to Timothy, written in the name and spirit of St Paul. It pictures Paul in prison knowing he will shortly be executed. He calls this pouring out of his blood a ‘libation’ – a liquid such as wine poured out as a sacrifice on an altar in both Jewish and Pagan religions. Images of the fight, the race, and the winner’s crown come from the Hellenistic games of that time, but fit with modern sports as well. Just as a winner must continue to the end, so must a Christian living the life of the spirit.
Coming like a ‘Last Testament’ of St Paul’s life, it is a good expression of his teaching and his confident faith. But as the author states, the reward of loving God is also for all those ‘who have longed’ to be in the presence of the Lord. Paul does not brag about his own efforts, beyond pointing out that he has held on to the end, but attributes all to the power of the Lord.
This well-known parable is only in Luke, who writes a sentence of introduction alerting us to look beyond the Pharisee to any persons who share his attitude. Jesus starts with a setting and characters his listeners would find familiar. There is a problem for us, however, without the same background. Frequently moderns get the picture wrong: they see the Pharisee as rich and socially powerful, and the toll-collector/tax collector/publican as poor and humbled. The opposite was more likely to have been true. The original hearers who would have admired a Pharisee and despised a rich tax collector were in for a shock. With some imagination, we can replace these with what kind of characters as seen in our times as admired religious leaders and on the other hand, despised wealthy and ‘shrewd operators’.
The Pharisees were a Jewish religious movement aimed at following the Law in the most detailed particulars, even going beyond what was required. It is often a short step from striving to be perfect to being proud of what one has achieved. Pharisees also felt set apart to be free from contact with ‘inferiors’ and we hear them in other parts of the gospels blaming Jesus for his association with tax collectors and others they considered public sinners.
The toll collectors worked for the Romans and could take as much as they could squeeze rather than just a set amount. Thus they were despised as traitors by the Jews, seeing them grow rich from extortion. There no exact modern equivalent, but many today can be observed to have grown wealthy from unfair treatment of others or by political corruption.
The Greek has some emphasis on the Pharisee ‘standing’, which J. A. Fitzmyer in his commentary on Luke catches by saying the Pharisee ‘took a stance’. This implies a confident attitude, putting himself in a prominent place where his praying could be admired. The tax collector stood ‘far off’, just inside the precincts, or some such inconspicuous place, and hardly raises his eyes.
Thanksgiving is frequent in the Psalms where it is offered for God’s blessings, as in Psalm 74/75, ‘We give thanks to you, O God, as we recount your marvels.’ So it was a recognised type of personal and public prayer. The Pharisee uses a form of thanksgiving, but it is actually all praise of himself. Some of the same self-congratulation is also found in Jewish prayers from near that time, says G.B. Caird in his commentary and he quotes some examples. Jesus was not exaggerating the words a real Pharisee might use. Satisfied with himself, he also presumes to know how others are less worthy and specifically the inferior spiritual condition of the tax collector he has observed.
The Pharisee compares himself with others while addressing God, but shows no sense of being in relationship with the Lord. The tax collector, however, is looking at God, and sees himself only in comparison to God’s holiness and loving kindness. The translation we hear at mass misses a significant nuance of his prayer by saying ‘a sinner’ where the Greek has ‘the sinner’. He is not just placing himself among other sinners, but seeing only his own condition before God. To catch this, Fitzmyer suggests the wording ‘sinner that I am.’ The tax collector makes no excuses and knows he deserves nothing and can only ask for mercy. He instead puts his trust in God as the one who was described often in the Jewish scriptures as full of loving-kindness, mercy and willingness to forgive.
We have Jesus’ judgement on the value of their prayers. Luke may have added the final comment on exalting/humbling oneself from other sayings of Jesus, as he used it at 14:11. It quotes from the prophet Ezekiel.
Fitzmyer: ‘This is a warning addressed not only to contemporaries of Jesus but to Christian disciples. They are to pray as the toll-collector.’ No matter how well we think we live up to the demands of our faith, we are all in need of God’s mercy. The Greek used for ‘sinners’ comes from the root meaning ‘missing the mark’. We all come before God as those who even when trying do not always ‘hit the target’ we aspire to. Our masses stress this by starting with a confession and/or the prayers, ‘Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy’. If we recite this merely by rote without awareness of our real need for mercy, we are missing the meaning of Jesus’ parable.