Oct. 24, 2010 –Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Is it a sin to be respectable? It almost sounds as though it is if you skim through the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18.
After all, the Pharisee was respectable, as he reminded God in his prayer. He proclaimed himself clean of the sins of greed, dishonesty, and adultery. He pointed out that he fasted twice a week, instead of the once a week commonly practiced. He even asserted his own generosity, evidenced by tithing his entire income. The Pharisee was indeed respectable. He even sounds like the sort of parishioner many pastors would love to have. He’s never in trouble, and his pledge is always up to date.
It helped the Pharisee’s case that a Tax Collector had come to the temple at the same time. It would be hard to find a more dramatic contrast. Of course, no one likes to pay taxes, but the tax collectors in Israel at the time were resented on multiple levels. First of all, they were viewed a traitors, for they collected taxes for the hated Roman Empire, which had conquered Palestine, thus ending the Jews’ independent national life. Secondly, tax collectors obtained their own incomes by charging more than they had to turn over to the Romans. There were guidelines as to how much the tax collectors should demand, but there was no one to enforce the guidelines, and no one to appeal to if the tax collectors exceeded those limits. The Tax Collector, then, was an outcast – a traitor who associated with Gentile invaders and who was most likely both greedy and dishonest. He definitely was not respectable.
And yet God accepted the prayer of the Tax Collector, but not the prayer of the Pharisee. Why?
The key to this parable is found in Jesus’ opening line, “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you.’” While in form addressed to God, his main point is his own self-congratulation and his desire to remind God of all his good qualities. There is no real thanksgiving to God for anything except his self-satisfaction, no real thanks for any gifts or graces God has bestowed upon him.
The prayer of the Tax Collector is different. He knows that under his own power he has fallen flat. Without God’s grace and forgiveness, he has no hope. So all he can do is address God with humility and penitence, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” God accepts such a prayer and offers his mercy.
This parable then is one more example of a theme that runs through Scripture: God’s ways are not our ways. It’s proclaimed in many places in both Old and New Testaments. Here Jesus sums up the message in the statement, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The reading from 2 Timothy 4 would seem to contradict Jesus’ message in the parable. St. Paul is recounting the sufferings he’s experienced for the sake of the Gospel and declares his steadfastness despite the opposition, “I have kept the faith.” It may sound a bit like the Pharisee, but there is a crucial difference. For Paul, God – not himself – is the principal actor: The Lord will rescue him and bring him safe to his kingdom and award him the crown. Besides, what’s so respectable about being a prisoner?
So to return to our initial question, is it a sin to be respectable? Of course not, if we’re motivated by love of God and thankfulness for his gifts and gratitude for his grace and mercy. That’s the motivation of stewardship, anyway, gratitude to God. But Jesus died to make men holy, not to make them respectable, even though sometimes Christians have seemed to confuse those attributes.
However, if we live respectable lives so that other people will praise us, well, how much do we really care about God’s opinion?