30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sometimes we read today’s Gospel passage about the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple with an air of ‘superiority’ – especially if we are reading it in Church.  We might think we are ‘better’ than the Pharisee. We might read it with a sense of humility, being more humble than the tax collector.  In either view, we need to understand not only the context of the parable Jesus relates, but the heart of the message.

This was not particularly a “swipe” at the Pharisees as a general group; nor was Jesus suggesting that what tax collectors in Israel were doing to their own people in extorting money and living opulent lifestyles was acceptable.  He was using figures familiar to the people in their own culture as reference points to make His point.

What was His point? St. Luke relates how Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Pharisees were a lay movement concerned with preserving the law of Moses and ensuring that that law, which was as much a part of their religion, history and culture as anything, was lived out amongst the people.  As with any group, there would be those who carried things to extremes, considering themselves to be the final word and paying extreme attention to details, losing site of the big picture; or those who considered themselves more important than the message that they were to be delivering and living out.  We can see this reflected in our own society – every organization has within it, people who get so caught up in the rules and regulations that they don’t pay attention to what the ‘end point’ of those rules and regulations is.

What this suggests is that not all, or even most Pharisees were legalistic and overbearing – it suggests there were some, just like any other group today.

With the tax collector, those who collaborated with the Roman occupiers, their particular ‘trade’ was considered traitorous to the other children of Israel. They over-collected taxes to pad their own lifestyles, and by associating with the Romans, made themselves unfit to participate in Temple activities. Many used the force of Roman troops that were part of their ‘office’ to extort money from their own people, and many lived only concerned with their own wealth, comfort and privilege.

The example suggests, again, that while many of the tax collectors fit this description, not all of them did.

Maybe if we look at our own modern culture, we could see similar examples in our own secular world; we could substitute other fields for our principle characters; maybe people who consider themselves better than others because they belong to the ‘right crowd’ – religiously or secularly- versus people who have isolated themselves through their own actions, and recognize they are isolated.

Think about government agencies; the popular myth might be that they treat you like a number, not a person – and yet when we deal individually with the people who work in these places, we find they are people just like us; maybe at work they go out of their way to help others; outside work they are generous and caring.  We could say there is a stereotype, but not all , or even most fit that stereotype.

We might say church organizations are full of people who are concerned only with processes and not people, with rules rather than compassion; and yet we find that when we deal with these people one on one, again we find that very few actually fit that stereotype.

At the opposite end of the scale, we may think of jail inmates with contempt; as dangerous, hard people.  Yet we may find that individually they may be compassionate, generous and humble.  Yet again, perhaps very few fit the stereotype.

In this parable, Jesus speaks to all of us regarding our own opinions of our own righteousness before God, and our contempt of others.  We are to diligently guard against falling into this mindset ourselves.  He did not provide this parable as a means of patting ourselves on the back and pointing at others with contempt.  The point of this parable was to remind us all of what our internal disposition should be whenever we approach God.

We need to recognize that everything is gift; undeserved, unearned, freely-given blessings from God.  We have no right to demand or feel entitled to God’s grace because of anything we have done or said in our lives.  If we participate in devotional practices, we do it out of love and for honour of God; not because God will be impressed with us or ‘owe’ us anything after.  When we approach God, it should be as one who recognizes that we have been given far more than we could possible earn or deserve – we have been given the opportunity to live in relationship with the Creator of all.

It should be in a spirit of humility, recognizing our own limitations, that we approach God; God who is always willing to forgive, to provide, to love us, no matter who we are, what we have done, or where we have been.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

11th Sunday Ordinary Time

There are those who consider themselves righteous or ‘right with God’ because they follow some ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ on the surface, but they miss the heart of the law – compassion and mercy- and there are those who consider themselves righteous because they expect something from God whether they follow the law or not; that they are ‘good to go’ because they ‘never sin’.   Often that type of phrase is followed with, ’well I’ve never murdered anyone’, as if that is the sole criteria that determines someone’s sinfulness or not.  We forget that sin is simply, by definition, anything that we knowingly and deliberately chose that separates us from total relationship with God.

Anything – not just our actions, but also our attitudes.

We have this illustrated in our Gospel passage from St. Luke in which Jesus’ feet are washed by the tears of a woman in the home of a Pharisee.

A Pharisee invites Jesus into his home for a meal, extending hospitality to Him; and Jesus accepts– obviously Jesus is not hostile to all Pharisees, and this is something crucial in placing this particular story in a proper context.  Jesus accepts a Pharisee’s invitation to dinner; why would He have accepted that offer, if He was not open to relationship with everyone?  Jesus wouldn’t go to someone’s house for a meal just to chastise them in front of their household or other guests – that would be rather mean-spirited and petty.

It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t ‘hate’ the Pharisees, and that not all Pharisees ‘hated’ Jesus.  Just like every other group of people in the world, there were some who authentically lived out their faith, and others who didn’t.  Even while Jesus tries to clarify the Scriptures and God’s will to the Pharisees – sometimes those ‘public’ debates get quite animated – we still see Jesus repeating over and over that He has come for everyone; that God’s love is for everyone; that God’s mercy is for everyone.

And into the middle of this dinner of righteous people who don’t consider themselves sinners, comes a woman who they think is very sinful, someone who shouldn’t be in their company; someone who wasn’t invited in.

Jesus tells this woman that she is forgiven because she loves much; her heart is overwhelmed with her desire to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness – and this is displayed in her weeping and her clinging to Jesus, washing his feet with her tears; drying them with her hair; kissing and anointing them.  This is a pretty strong picture of someone who is completely overcome with emotion and gratitude.  Yet she had to come to Jesus – she had to seek out forgiveness and mercy – she had to desire it and ask for it and in humility, welcome it.

Jesus doesn’t excuse her sins, whatever they may be – and the Gospel is not particularly clear on what her sins are. Jesus only says they are many.  He doesn’t say, ‘keep doing what you have been doing.’  He forgives her and tells her to go in peace; that language indicates an expectation that she will not waste this great moment of mercy that she has been granted.

The Pharisee on the other hand, is not a ‘bad’ person. He has invited Jesus into his home as a guest of honour.  He may not have completely attended to all of Jesus’ physical needs (as in offering some water to wash His feet), but He has opened his home and his table to Jesus.  There may be a presumption on his part that, as a Pharisee and as one who rigorously follows the letter of the law, he is ‘entitled’ to a relationship with God – that God somehow ‘owes’ him.  But there is no humility in this approach; and if we think we are ‘owed’ something, there is no gratitude in receiving what is due to us.

How would each of us react in the presence of Jesus in this story; would we be quite comfortable, expecting that we deserve His company, and that our relationship with Him only requires the bare minimum of our attention and devotion when it comes to serving Him?  Or would we react like the woman, coming into His presence completely overwhelmed and unable to contain our deepest longing and desire for love and mercy and forgiveness?

Well, as Catholics we believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist; He is really and truly present to us, right here, right now.  How do we react to that?

If Jesus was saying, ‘you’re perfect just the way you are’ there would be no need for Him to tell the woman she is forgiven her ‘many’ sins, and there would be no need for Him to offer the Pharisee correction in his observance of the law of Moses.  God tells us we are loved as we are; that He desires a relationship with us, seeking us where we are in the circumstances we find ourselves.  But there is much more for us; there is an expectation that we will be moved to deeply desire and act upon His love and mercy and forgiveness.

We can’t simply call ourselves Christians’ and expect that is enough.  We have to live what it means to be Catholic, a Christian, a follower of Christ; a disciple of Jesus; a child of God. We have to live that all the time; not just on special occasions.

It is a meaningless gift that only asks us to love God and our neighbour in the most minimal and superficial way; it is a great treasure that requires us to completely change our lives, our attitudes and our approach to God and others – seeking His love and mercy and forgiveness, and then, with His help, showing that same mercy, love and forgiveness to everyone we encounter.


Praised be Jesus, now and forever!