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30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (23.10.16)
All Too Near The Bone
The contrasting characters capture your imagination in the 30th Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 18: 9-14). Though both were Jews, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector inhabited very different places in their ethnic group. In his parable Jesus places both simultaneously in The (Jerusalem) Temple.
The Pharisee in this Gospel extract might well attract the label hypocrite. A Wikipedia definition of hypocrisy tell us:
Hypocrisy is the contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing a person’s real character or inclinations, especially with respect to religious and moral beliefs. In a general sense, hypocrisy is an attempted dissimulation, pretense or sham.
A hypocrite lives in a world of contest between pretence and real. It is a contest as old as humanity itself. It originates with Satan’s successful use of duplicitous pretence to tempt Eve to reach for the ‘forbidden fruit’. (Genesis 3:2-4) Eve, in turn, brought the contamination to Adam. Aided by Evil, humanity has subsequently and uninterruptedly perpetuated the malpractice by contaminating truth with falsehood up to the present time.
Evil continuously refines its attempts to manipulate our free will. Unless humanity builds up its defence, by deepening its union with Jesus through prayer and practice, it remains dangerously at risk. There is ample evidence that many Christian people in Britain have lapsed from their Baptismal commitments. (See the article ‘Are All Followers, Disciples?’ for the 23rd Sunday)
Made, as we are, in God’s imagine and likeness humanity is orientated to the truth. But just as a compass needle will veer to the magnetic north, as opposed to the true north, in response to the earth’s magnetic field, fallen humanity veers to hypocrisy.
If, hearing the Gospel extract, we spontaneously associated the Pharisee with hypocrisy we might ask the question why? Does the speed of our choice of the word hypocrite tell us something about ourselves? Are we, perhaps, more familiar with hypocrisy than we choose to admit?
The question is was the Pharisee being hypocritical? Was he truly trying to make himself out to be something he wasn’t namely, an honest, God-fearing Jew? Might it be that he was struggling somewhere in the process of discernment that, despite his fasting and tithing, he remained a sinner? As yet, he just hadn’t gone that extra mile. He remained at war with himself that he deflected by making war on others, in this case the Tax Collector who happened to be in the right place at the wrong moment. Jesus, in the parable, gave no indication of what might subsequently have transpired nor do we know if he were quoting from an experience he had witnessed.
There are clues in the text to be explored. Both men had chosen to come to the Temple in their quest for God. Both were reaching out to God albeit from apparently quite different starting points. Only God knows the true dispositions of a person’s soul. None of us has a comprehensive knowledge of our own soul, let alone that of another.
People, assembling in churches today, compose very diverse communities. In addition to linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity, the behaviour of some outrages others. Those provoking a supposed outrage may seem oblivious that their incessant talking, for example, is causing offence. Those who are outraged are furious with, what in their eyes, is offensive, inappropriate behaviour in church.
Is the prayer of either acceptable to God? God alone knows.
How many Mass-attending Catholics have switched lanes for Holy Communion because the minister was not a priest or was a woman, (for some reason Nuns in religious habits are acceptable) or was from an ethnically distinct background?
Does what children see and hear inside the home in their family’s everyday behaviour and speech marry with the same adult’s speech and behaviour outside of the home?
By regularly watching television programs such as ‘soaps’ do parents and adults in general give tacit approval to what they claim to disagree with because of their religion? What are children to make of this conundrum? “It’s only entertainment” or “it’s only a story” are not convincing responses.
Jesus, in his ministry, frequently encountered hypocrisy and spoke out fearlessly against it. Matthew Chapter 23 records Jesus’ warning against the hypocrisy of certain Pharisees.
These thoughts are being collated on the Feast of St Peter Claver (1581-1654) a young Catalan Jesuit priest. He ministered for thirty-three years to captured Africans brought to Columbia as slave labourers. As a consequence, many Columbians of the upper classes refused to attend church if Fr Peter was to be the celebrant. Fr Peter fell ill and died as a result of his labours. Hypocrisy appears to have been alive and thriving in the 16th and 17th centuries too.
The Tax Collector and the Pharisee had come to the One God who would prefer to forgive them than condemn them and who would not judge them by their human inequalities.
Who is to say if that Pharisee did not find healing for his spiritual blindness? There are many Catholics today whose religious formation, having been more ‘stick’ than ‘carrot’, lead them to an externalized conformity that hid a resentful interiority. Their release from such ‘enslavement’ may have come in their late years when change is not easy.
The Tax Collector was a publicly ostracized and loathed Jew in his own community for being a lackey of the occupying Roman Empire. Who but God is to know the, perhaps, dire circumstances – family starvation, blackmail, indebtedness etc – that may have forced this Jew to become a Tax Collector? Matthew, the Tax Collector, did become Saint Matthew, the Apostle and author of a Gospel at the invitation of Jesus (Matt 9:9-13)
Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) said: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
The self-adulation of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable – Jesus describes him as “saying a prayer to himself” – belies his lack of peace. His not being at peace with himself is because he is not at peace with God; this in turn makes it impossible for him to be at peace with any other person.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) also said: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”
The Tax Collector’s standing “at a distance” tells us how he sees himself namely as a social outcast. It makes you feel for his wife and children who would also have been ostracized, like their father.
Three of the few homes in a small cul-de-sac have children. One family celebrated their child’s birthday with a bouncy castle. The children from one of the other families were invited; the children of the other family were not. They have a different ethnicity. Small as they are, how must those children have felt and what vibes did they pick up from their parents?
We might be prompted to ask Jesus to show us what he wishes us to take to heart from his parable. Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector have something to offer us for our end-of-day examination of conscience, perhaps along the lines of -
How destructive of true peace is external conformity when it is lacking true love.
How painful is the loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted when the only work available makes us despised.