Scripture notes – 30th Sunday of the Year, C – 23rd October 2022

The first reading today is like those of last week, a stress on God’s concern for the poor, something that is found throughout the Older and New Testaments, and echoed by Pope Francis. So it seems appropriate that in recent days, the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales joined the Archbishop of Canterbury in pointing out that the policies being proposed for the country go against the ‘option for the poor’ while protecting or rewarding those already wealthy.

The readings are available online here.

Ecclesiasticus/ Sirach 35:12-14, 16-19
Some clarification on the name and the history of this book can be helpful. Some 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 been named personally: 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, and may be listed as ‘Apocrypha’ 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.

The message today: 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.

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
This selection is an appropriate close to several weeks from the Second Letter to Timothy, composed as a farewell, written in the name and spirit of St Paul. It pictures Paul in prison knowing he will shortly be executed and 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, race, and the winner’s crown come from the 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.

As 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.

Luke 18:9-14
This selection is one of the famous parables of Luke, but is in danger of being misunderstood especially after the earlier readings on the prayer of the poor and humble. Without a knowledge of the social situation at the time, some assume the ‘Publican’ is one of them and assume the Pharisee was rich and socially powerful. The opposite was more likely to have been true. A publican or tax collector worked for the Romans, and often extorted money from the Jews, and used his position amass funds for himself. The original hearers who would have admired a Pharisee and despised a rich tax collector were in for a shock.

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.

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 in which 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.

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 a 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. No matter how much of a wrong-doer one is, God hears a petition for forgiveness.

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.

Joan Griffith