Matthew’s gospel gives us a glimpse into the tumultuous early life of the holy family. He begins by introducing us to Jesus through his genealogy which is meant to place Jesus in the kingly line of David. But by enumerating Jesus’ ancestors, Matthew is also stressing the humanity of Jesus whose family tree contains saints, sinners, kings, prostitutes and even murderers.
The story of the birth of Jesus then begins with Joseph’s discovery that Mary was pregnant. He was about to break the engagement when, in a dream, an angel told him not to be afraid to marry her. The Holy Spirit has been guiding this relationship, and it
was through the power of the Holy Spirit that she had conceived. The angel then shared with Joseph the child’s destiny. “She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” Quite a revelation for a young man about to embark on married life! But the story didn’t stop there.
Sometime after the child was born, exotic figures, Magi from the East, came to Jerusalem looking for the “newborn king of the Jews.” Their appearance fanned the flames of king Herod’s paranoia. So, the angel returned to Joseph, once again in a dream, to warn him that Herod wanted to destroy the child. He told Joseph that he must flee the country and take refuge in Egypt. They packed up what little they had and fled to Egypt in the middle of the night.
After a period of time, the angel again appeared in Joseph’s dream. He informed him that Herod had died, and that it was safe to return to Judah. But learning that Herod’s son, the highly unpopular Archelaus, had succeeded his father, Joseph brought his wife and son to the northern region of Galilee. They settled in a town called Nazareth which was outside the jurisdiction of Archelaus.
This story of the holy family certainly touches all of us in one way or another. We all have relatives we’re proud of, and we all have relatives who embarrass us. We live in a similarly turbulent world where many millions are fleeing violence and death threats. Others are fleeing from the hunger belts throughout the world.
Matthew’s account of the holy family’s early life is, perhaps, an attempt to offer hope to all of us, even the millions of families suffering what seem like hopeless situations. He’s reassuring us that God, in some mysterious way, stands in solidarity with us. Whatever our family or political situations may be, let’s acknowledge, and lean on, God’s presence in our lives. That’s the most perfect prayer we can lift up today. May God bless each one of us as we maneuver our way through the storms of life. May the Holy Spirit be with us to strengthen us with wisdom, and gift us with hope and peace.
THE FEAST OF MARY, THE MOTHER OF GOD December 31-January 1, 2019 Numbers 6:22-27 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:16-21 Gather #898
This Feast Day used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision. With the renewal of the Liturgy after Vatican Council II the accent was moved from Jesus to Mary. However, I would like to look briefly at both of these themes today because they’re so closely connected. Let’s first look at the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God.
The gospel passage begins by finishing the account of the shepherds. The angel had told them about the child who was born. “Today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” This is a clear announcement. Not only is this child the long-awaited Messiah, he is Lord. Remember, also, Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, “Blest are you among women.” She also greeted Mary as, “the mother of my Lord.” It’s from reflecting on passages like these that the Church came to give Mary the title, Theotokos, Mother of God (Godbearer).
This title, though focusing on Mary, clarifies our understanding of Jesus. He is both human and divine. The prologue of John’s gospel that we read at the Christmas Mass put it this way. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Word, the Son of God, became a human being, a son of man. In Jesus, we see the fullness of humanity. We see his humanity in his anger when he cleanses the temple. We see his humanity when he sweats blood in Gethsemane and screams out from the cross, “My God, why have you abandoned me?!” We see his humanity when he blesses the children. We see the face of God and man in the love he extends as he forgives sins and heals those who are suffering. We see him glorified as the Christ in his resurrection and ascension.
This brings us to the last part of the passage we’re reading today, the mention of the circumcision of Jesus. “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb”
This was the day he was stamped with his name, Jesus, which means savior. This is the day he entered our human family, the son of Mary, a man, a Jew. “The Word was made flesh…made his dwelling among us…and we have seen his glory.”
This feast weds heaven to earth in the person of Jesus, God and man. In Jesus we see the face of God.
Our Christmas reflection begins a few days early as we ponder the scripture readings for the last Sunday of Advent. We begin by listening to the most famous prophecy in the Old Testament.
At a time of grave national crisis, as kings were uniting to wage war against Judah’s king Ahaz, Isaiah delivered these words of hope to him. “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Isaiah was speaking to the dire situation Ahaz was facing, but at the same time, his prophecy was looking into the future. Today, Matthew incorporates this prophecy into his infancy narrative that begins, like the story of King Ahaz, with a crisis.
Joseph had discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. He had decided to quietly dissolve the engagement until he had a dream. In the dream an angel explained to him that he and Mary were part of a divine intervention that was beginning to unfold through the working of the Holy Spirit. Mary would give birth to a son who was to be named Jesus, a name that focused his destiny. Jesus means: to deliver – to rescue – to save. He will be the long-awaited redeemer. Matthew then quoted Isaiah’s prophecy but implied a radically new interpretation. The child would be named Emmanuel, “which means ‘God is with us.’” For King Ahaz the child that was to be born would be strengthened by God’s power in order to rescue Judah from invading armies. Matthew declared that at that very moment Isaiah’s prophecy had come to fulfillment. This child named Jesus would literally be “God with us!”
MIDNIGHT MASS December 24, 2019 Titus 2:11-14 Gather #892
We bundle up and leave our homes in the dead of night to gather with the community for the Midnight Mass. Again, Isaiah speaks to us. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
Then St. Paul adds to Isaiah’s prophecy. His short exclamation in his letter to his co-worker, Titus, reassures him, and us, that God’s light is with him. “The grace of God has appeared, saving all…as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”
Finally, an angel speaks to us through the shepherds in Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. From the dark night sky, the angel speaks. “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you, who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying a manger.”
Luke’s reference to the child wrapped in swaddling clothes is a prophecy of the day the adult Jesus will, once again, be again be wrapped in clothes – this time, he will be wrapped in his shroud. His redemptive death is intimated even at the moment of his birth. And as we gaze at the manger we recall Jesus’ promise to be the bread of life.
In the darkness of this holy night we celebrate the Light proclaiming that Christ, the Light, is among us. With joy and thanksgiving, we celebrate that Light and share the Bread of Life. May it strengthen us in our mission to bring the Light into the darkness.
As we read the Advent scriptures we can feel a dramatic pressure building. There’s anticipation and a deep sense of hope within us. Think of the messianic prophecies Isaiah proclaimed to us over the past three weeks.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” “Strengthen the hand of the feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong fear not! Here is your God.”
When we think of the messiah and the new world to come, we’re filled with hope, which is the core of Advent. But these words of hope can, and often do, backfire on us. We listen to these wonderful prophecies, and then look at the world we live in. War, violence, starvation, global warming, political corruption, sex abuse, Chinese concentration camps, American detention centers, refugees, immigrants – and on and on. It’s no wonder that there’s so much depression during the holidays. We’re torn between hope and despair.
James, in the portion of his letter that we read today, gives us some good spiritual advice. “Be patient brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer STEWARDSHIP REPORT
waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You too must be patient.” But sitting around being patient isn’t enough. So he adds, “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Isaiah gives us a vision to work towards. We must be patient and deeply dedicated to the work of the promised kingdom. The messianic time will come through people like me and you who relentlessly work for justice, harmony, forgiveness and compassion. We recommit ourselves to this work every time we celebrate the Eucharist by proclaiming individually and as a community: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We’re beginning our reflection this week with more of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic time. He reassures us that, no matter how devastated our world may seem to be, a “shoot shall sprout…a bud shall blossom.”
This sprout, this shoot, is the Messiah whose attributes Isaiah describes in detail. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord…He will judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted…He will strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”
Isaiah moves on to paint a poetic picture of the new world, the Messianic time. “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to guide them.” Isaiah sees a world rejoicing in peace and harmony. “There shall be no more ruin on my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
It may be difficult to take this prophecy seriously, today. Our world, and our country, are in turmoil with civic unrest, racial tensions, violence, corruption among the highest government officials, religious leaders and even parents bribing to get their children into good schools. Even though we believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, realistically, the world he came to save is still a mess of violence and corruption. Let’s move on to the gospel to add Matthew’s insight into our reflection regarding the Messianic time.
He begins by quoting Isaiah 40:3. “A voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew presents John the Baptist as “the voice” declaring the advent of the new time. Interestingly, John doesn’t use the beautiful poetic images of Isaiah when he speaks about it. Instead, his voice publically condemns the religious leaders who are coming to him to be baptized as a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. He knew that they weren’t coming to him with repentant hearts.
“You brood of vipers!” He spits at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” There was nothing subtle about John’s condemnation. He understood that the world could never be changed by a powerful political leader even though he might conquer the whole world. His message proclaimed that the world would be transformed from the inside out!
He understood that laws wouldn’t change the world because they’re fragile band-aids to immediate problems, and that clever lawyers and politicians would inevitably squirm around them. Historically, political messiahs ended up thrusting the world into war and turmoil. No, these “messiahs” could never usher in the Messianic time.
The new world, the Messianic time, will appear and shed its light, through the human heart – a heart cleansed of ego – a heart filled with love. Saint Paul understood this when he wrote to the Romans, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14)
The message for this Second Sunday of Advent may sound simple, but it’s a profound challenge for every Christian. The new world will come when each of us empty ourselves and become Christ.
Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known pas- sage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious politi- cal situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrust – worthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in
721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Pales- tine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during
those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah de- livered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she has become! Zion, once full of fair judgment, where saving justice used to dwell, but now assassins! Your silver has turned to dross, your wine is watered. Your princes are rebels, accomplices of brigands. All of them greedy for presents and eager for bribes, they show no justice to the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision Jerusalem is trans- formed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dis- solved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National boarders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream to the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national boarders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”
We don’t often think about kingship today, a concept foreign to us, yet one we must ponder if we’re to understand the depth of the feast we’re celebrating.
In the first scripture reading of the day, taken from the Second Book of Samuel, we’re given an
account of the tribes of Israel gathering to anoint David as their King. They declare
him as their shepherd, their protector, and their commander. David will
eventually betray this trust by using his sacred position to orchestrate the death of one of his most trusted commanders in order to take his wife as his own. We learn, through David, that the exalted position of kingship can easily become self-serving, and even tragically destructive.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, the second reading for the day, breaks into a rhapsodic hymn of praise as he describes Jesus being lifted up as the Christ. He pro- claims Jesus the image of the invisible God, and the first born of all creation. He
tells us that he is be- fore all things, and in him all things hold together. Through him we have redemption. “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to rec- oncile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross.” In awe and wonder, Saint Paul describes the King- ship of Christ crucified.
In the Gospel passage Luke sets a scene that stands as the antithesis of the tribes of Israel gather-
ing to anoint David as their King. The proclamation of execution nailed to the cross is as clear as any written statement could be: “This is the King of the Jews.” As the people gather around Jesus as he hangs on the cross, they taunt him shouting, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
On the cross Jesus teaches us that true and authentic Kingship does not bring with it absolute power over people. Rather, Kingship demands the total emptying of the self. Jesus was anointed King on the
cross. That act of self-giving lifted Jesus up to the Father as Christ. His anointing aa Christ is what we celebrate today.
The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that, as children of God, we’ve too have been anointed “king.” Whether a political figure, a CEO, the principal of a school, a manager, a teacher, physician, mother, father, guardian, or priest, each one of us is invited to raise our eyes to gaze on Jesus as our model – Jesus on the cross. If we empty ourselves as he did, if we live for others and not ourselves, he will say to us what he said to the criminal crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
We’re one week away from the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year. In preparation, the scriptures direct us to reflect on a powerful theme, the sec- ond coming of Christ. We first read the prophet Malachi’s description of the coming of the Son of Man, a “day blazing like an oven.” It will be a time of global purification preceding the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of a new world.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel builds upon this theme by presenting Jesus’ teaching on his second coming. He presents it as a time of judgment and cosmic purification “when nation will
rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” But Jesus warns his followers that be- fore the great purification “they will seize and persecute you…because
of my name.”
The Church uses this theme at the end of the year to encourage us to look at our chaotic world with a judgmental eye. Our world wasn’t meant to be a place of “war, famine and persecution.” What have we done to it?! We’re killing each other by the millions as we wrestle for power. We’re ravaging the earth with our strip mining and fracking, polluting our waters and destroying our forests. We’re choking on our garbage, and suffocating ourselves with car and plane emissions. So many of our politicians have lost concern for the common good, and many of our religious leaders are blind guides.
As we end the year we judge our past. But in two weeks, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll begin a new year by listening to Isaiah’s prophecy of the new world. “They shall beat their swords into plow- shares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again…let us walk in the light of the Lord!” No matter how dark the world looks to us today, we will begin the New Year with hope, and the resolve to work for the coming of the Kingdom.
Lord Jesus, you ask that I continue your mission by becoming, like you, the light of the world. Send your powerful Spirit to guide and strengthen me. May I, with your help, be a source of hope in the darkness of this chaotic world. Help me to persevere and be strong even though I may be “hated by all because of your name.” Use me to prepare the world for the coming of your kingdom.
Autumn has finally begun to show her face in the Big Apple. Spending the mornings at the Convent of the Sacred Heart where I minister as chaplain, I can view a great panorama of Central Park from the roof of the building. The red and yellow leaves shimmer with a wonderful muted light that only Autumn seems to be able to provide. Soon the leaves will blanket the ground – preparing the earth for its long winter’s sleep.
We’ve just paid homage to the arrival of Fall with three consecutive days of celebration: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But we continue reflecting on the sentiment of these three days for a month, until the beginning of our new Liturgical Year on the First Sunday of Advent. This week’s Gospel passage is in line with this Autumnal celebration. We’re thinking about life after death. This is introduced into the Liturgy through Luke’s account of a confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees.
The Sadducees and the Pharisees were the two politi- cal/religious parties in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The Sadducees were the aristocratic ruling class, and were even more conservative than the Pharisees. They only acknowledged the first five books of the bible as truly revealed by God. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, and that angels and spirits did not exist. They were in direct opposition to the Pharisees who were the more liberal political party. They accepted in its entirety what we call the Old Testament, and believed in the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels and spirits. The two parties put aside their differences and united against Jesus.
In the passage today, the Sadducees attacked Jesus on his beliefs in the resurrection. In a question, they contrived a situation in which a man
died leaving his wife childless. They dug up an ancient and archaic Jewish law that obliged the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s wife in order to father an heir for him. They made the story extra ridiculous by saying that the man’s seven brothers married the woman but each died before they could produce an heir. Their question to Jesus was this: “In the resurrection whose wife will this woman be?”
Jesus’ answer was quit clear. At the resurrection there will be no marriage. We become like angels. We become the children of God. He went on to remind them of the scene from the book of Exodus when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked who was speaking to him. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” Jesus went on to say that, “He is the God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.” In other words, death is not final. We live on.
The Church took this teaching of Jesus and linked it to a very popular pre-Christian, Gaelic celebration, Samhain (pronounced sow -in). The Church made it a three-day event: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Samhain marked the day of the year when it was believed that the veil between the corporal world and the spiritual world was at its thinnest. It developed a spooky and fantastical side but, at its core, it celebrated the continuity of our lives in the material world and in the spiritual world on the other side of the veil.
The Church followed up by remembering all the Saints who have been crowned in heavenly glory. Then, in the feast of All Souls, it encourages us to remember our friends and relatives who have recently passed through the veil.
Reflecting on Mother Nature’s winter sleep, the Church invites us to celebrate the fullness of our lives, here, in the earthly kingdom and, when we pass over, in the spiritual kingdom of God. As this world retreats into winter hibernation, we ponder the day of our pass-over and resurrection.
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the wealthy people of Jericho, and the many merchants who pass through with their goods, because he’s the city’s tax collector. We’re told that he’s “a wealthy man,” which is a nice way of saying he’s an extortionist. Being a tax collector under the Roman occupation, he’s labeled a traitor and a thief, and is shunned by the city’s population.
Before we go on with the story, let’s get a better picture of this important town. Jericho lies about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It’s an ancient city going back as far as 9,000 BC. It’s an oasis and enjoys the title, “the city of palms.” Because of its mild weather and beau- tiful springs, it attracts the rich and powerful. Herod has a summer palace there, and many
wealthy people from Jerusalem have villas there. It’s also important be- cause the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jor- dan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the em- pire.
Because Jericho is home to the rich and famous, celebrity seekers and the curious tend to mill along the roads entering and leaving the city. Beggars line the roads, too. Jesus, on his approach to Jericho that day, met a blind man who begged him to re- store his sight. “Jesus told him, ‘Have sight; your faith has saved you.’ He
immediately received his sight and followed Jesus, giving glory to God.” This new follower is among the crowd when Jesus enters the city and meets up with Zacchaeus.
Here’s the picture. Jesus of Nazareth, a well know personality in the Jewish world, has just entered the city after curing a blind man. There’s a noisy and sizable crowd following him. Zacchaeus sees the crowd approaching, and wants to get a glimpse of Jesus. But being too short to see over the crowd, and probably being elbowed by people who wanted to keep him away, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to get a good view of the healer from Nazareth. Lo and behold, when Jesus comes to the sycamore he stops. He looks up. Seeing little Zacchaeus hanging on to the branches, he says the most remarkable thing: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I
must stay in your home.”
People hate Zacchaeus. He’s lived a life of
corruption. He’s wealthy, but so what. He’s an outcast to his own people. Only his fellow outcasts, sinners and tax collectors, social- ize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to come to his home! From this moment on, Zacchaeus’ life will never be the same.
Immediately, the crowd begins to grumble because Jesus has invited himself to a sinner’s home, but little Zacchaeus stands up to them. Climbing down from the tree, he makes a public confession by announcing the amends he will make for his sins. “Behold, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I will repay it four-times over.” Without any hesitation Jesus gives him ab- solution. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” He then reasserts Zacchaeus into the community. He tells the crowd, “This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus follows this up with an important universal teaching. He announces to the crowd that, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
We mustn’t forget this teaching. Each of us, at one time or another, will find our- selves up a tree, in spiritual crisis. We might feel that we’re trapped in a life with no direction, no future. Asking God for help isn’t enough to change things. Sometimes we have to claim our part in creating the crisis, and we have to take aggressive steps to change. It’s never easy.
The blind man on the road to Jericho shouted out into the darkness that he wanted to see. Jesus heard him, recognized the depth of his faith, and announced his cure. Zacchaeus had extorted the mer- chants, and betrayed his people. The day Jesus came to town, his faith gave him the courage to publically confess his sins, and make amends to the community. By getting out on a limb, he was finally able to see Jesus. He took a chance, and Jesus entered his life that day.
The message for us is quite simple. Take a chance. Go out on a limb. It’s an important part of our spiritual lives. It can bring us healing. It can bring us a new life.
When it came to telling the truth, Jesus didn’t hold anything back. He was especially blunt with the religious leaders. For them, scrupulously following the rules and regulations of the law was the benchmark of true religion and what made a person righteous. Jesus often challenged their
teaching. Today’s parable is one of his most direct criticisms. Luke tells us that, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteous- ness and despised everyone else.”
Right off the bat, Jesus focused the story on a particular group, the Pharisees, an ultraorthodox group that evolved from the scribes and sages and adhered to the strictest observance of the law. They reveled in their orthodoxy, and even took on themselves the name Pharisee, which means: “one who is separated.” They were haughty, and believed that, when it came to religion, they were better than most people.
In the parable Jesus juxtaposes a Pharisee and a tax collector. Remember that in the political climate of the day the tax collector was looked upon with loathing. Let’s face it, every- one hates paying taxes – and the tax collector would naturally carry the brunt of that hatred. But there’s more to the position of tax collector. Palestine was occupied by a foreign power,
Rome, and was taxed heavily. The tax collector was, by definition, a traitor be- cause he worked as an instrument of a foreign government to the detriment of his own people. Jesus begins the parable with a description of the Pharisee’s prayer.
He took a position in the temple where he could be easily seen by the people and spoke aloud. “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The picture I get from this one sentence is of a man looking over a crowd of worshipers with his nostrils flared as if smelling something quite disgusting. He’s haughty and filled with deepest disdain for the people he sees. His gaze rests on the hated tax collector. He immediately
voices a prayer thanking God that he isn’t like the tax collector. The Pharisee goes on to inform God of the depth of his commitment to the law. “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Jesus then focuses the parable on the tax collector who has found a private place to pray away from the people. He doesn’t dare look up to heaven. He bows his head, and begins to beat his breast as a sign of his sinfulness and repentance. He then quietly and simply pours out his heart. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
In this simple scene Jesus spins a teach- ing about the power of truth and the emptiness of self-delusion. The Pharisee proclaims himself the model of righteousness, bragging that he’s not dishonest, or greedy. He’s certainly not like this tax collector. How very true! In his prayer, the tax collector pours out his heart, honestly, and humbly con- fesses his frailty and struggles. He prays truthfully, and is rewarded. He returns home justified.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, is an empty shell of a person. He has abandoned his heart and soul. He doesn’t pray to God – he prays to the idol he has created. He worships himself and invites others to worship him. He did not go home justified. He went home more inflated and less alive.
Jesus ends the parable by warning us that “whoever exalts himself will be hum- bled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The parable is giving us a very simple teaching. When you or I honestly open up and, in painful humility, present our wounded and broken selves to God, God’s healing love rushes into our hearts. Will all our wounds disappear? Some will. Some won’t. Will we no longer be broken people? Maybe not! What will happen is much more important. God’s love of us will assist us in truly loving ourselves.
The Pharisee was in love with a false image of himself. That kind of idolatry doesn’t invite God’s healing love. Only our honest self- assessment, no matter how bad we may seem to ourselves, opens the floodgates of God’s healing love. When we accept ourselves for the broken and limited individuals we are, we can lay down our heads and rest peacefully in the knowledge that God loves who we are.