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Friday, October 25, 2019

"I am not like the rest of humanity" - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
"Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."


In the ancient world, everyone hated tax collectors. The Romans, who levied the taxes, allowed private entrepreneurs to travel around collecting the dues. In order to make extra money, though, these collectors ― sometimes called “publicans” ― usually cheated people out of extra money, which they then kept for themselves. Indeed, tax collectors were often scandalously rich. So when Jesus tells this parable about the imaginary tax collector praying in the Temple, we should not imagine that his audience was predisposed to admire such men. 

How provocative, then, for Jesus to say that this despised tax collector “went home justified” from the Temple while the Pharisee who “fasts twice a week and pays tithes on [his] whole income” did not. Even though the tax collector had been leading a corrupt life, Jesus insists that “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” In God’s eyes, the publican ― though a scoundrel by trade ― is more righteous than the Pharisee. The tax collector knows he is a sinner and his confession has transformed him. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is righteous only on the surface. He keeps the fasts and pays the tithes, but he “was convinced of his own righteousness and despised everyone else.” 

But there’s a subtle detail to Jesus’ parable that, though often overlooked, deepens the story in a crucial way. It is true that the Pharisee prays all sorts of self-righteous and judgmental things ― “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity!” ― and that, in itself, is damaging enough. But we should also notice that, when the Pharisee began to pray, the text says he “spoke [his] prayer to himself.This does not just mean he spoke his prayer in such a way that only he could hear it. No, as St. Basil the Great (d. 379) once said, the Pharisee actually “prayed ... not to God … but to himself…. For his sin of pride sent him back into himself.” The Pharisee was so preoccupied with his own righteousness that his words were really just directed at himself rather than the God he claimed to worship. 

This is actually a very troubling detail. Recall that Jesus addressed this parable “to those who are convinced of their own righteousness.” That means it’s addressed to you and me. We all admit we’re imperfect. But, if we’re honest, we often think, like the Pharisee, that we are “not like the rest of humanity,” that we stand out from the crowd. Jesus also addressed “those who … despise everyone else.” We would never say we “despise” them, but, if we’re honest, don’t we sometimes look at the people around us ― without ever trying to know their story ― in the same way the Pharisee looked at the publican? “O God, I thank you that I am not … like this tax collector.” Don’t we often harbor a similar unspoken disdain for those we’re sure have fallen short of us? “Thank you, God, that I am not like this atheist.” Don’t we sometimes even think this way in the pew? We’re never as explicit as the Pharisee, but how sure are we that we’re not muttering the same things somewhere in the back of our minds? 

The disturbing thing is that, when we fall into these patterns of thinking, Jesus’ parable tells us that we aren’t even communing with God anymore. When we are so preoccupied with ourselves, our prayers ― what we thought were dialogues with God ― become fruitless monologues with ourselves. We become so concerned with distinguishing ourselves from others that our vision cannot escape the horizon of our own vanity and, yes, we begin to worship ourselves

The only correct response when one looks at their soul is that of the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” When we look at ourselves, there is nothing else to do but to reach out to God for mercy. If you make a case for yourself ― either by presenting a résumé of your righteousness or by comparing yourself to others ― then you’re not even speaking with God anymore; you’ve recentered the conversation entirely around yourself. Indeed, it is “the one who humbles himself who will be exalted.” It is the one who recognizes that there is nothing to do but ask for God’s help who will be exalted. It is this one who “will go home justified.”

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Prayer as a Black Eye - 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 18:1-8
Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, "There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
'Render a just decision for me against my adversary.'
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
'While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.'"
The Lord said, "Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"


Jesus was funnier than you think. Because the Gospels do not depict any of the times Jesus laughed, the humorous side of Jesus’ personality is often forgotten. But his parables are often quite comical, and this parable about the widow and the judge “who neither feared God nor respected any human being” is one such parable. 

The central meaning of the story isn’t all that difficult to discover. Just before this passage, Jesus made clear to his apostles that the end of the world has not yet come. Thus, while they are waiting, Jesus offers this week’s parable “about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” His analogy is quite simple. The old widow obtained her request by constantly petitioning the unjust judge. How much more will you obtain your requests by constantly petitioning the God who cares for his chosen ones? It’s a point that Christianity takes very seriously ― the effectiveness of constant prayer. But there’s a hilariousness to this story that needs to be parsed out, and not just because it’s funny. Indeed, its funniness also tells us something significant about Jesus and about the way God relates to us. 

Notice that, in the parable, the unjust judge was originally unwilling to rule in favor of the widow against her adversary. Notice, too, the reason he changes his mind: “I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” That is the translation the lectionary uses, and it’s totally fine. But, as one bible scholar puts it, the original Greek is comically “delicious.” Indeed, the text can be translated a number of ways. Here’s how the Sacra Pagina Catholic commentary translates it: “This widow gives me so much trouble that I will give her justice! Otherwise she will keep coming and end up giving me a black eye!” What a bizarre analogy Jesus uses for prayer! To God, the prayers of the faithful can be just as effective as sending an old widow to physically assault him. Indeed, “will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?” 

Jesus’ analogy also tells us something essential about himself. The apostles one day stumbled upon Jesus praying alone. “Lord, teach us to pray,” one of them asked, moved by what he’d seen (Lk 11:1). We might expect Jesus, when he teaches us about prayer, to offer some impenetrable insight about contemplation. I mean, he’s God ― why shouldn’t pure white light come from his mouth? Perhaps we expect him to offer some koan ― “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” ― that will reveal to us the true nature of prayer only after years of brutally disciplined meditation. No. The Son of God instead compares your prayers to a cranky old widow physically wailing upon a judge until she gets her way. You can practically see the black handbag flying through the air, one scholar has commented. What a bizarre and, quite frankly, humorous image. And, for Jesus, this is the nature of prayer

Jesus uses human images because he is ordinary, even while he’s extraordinary. He is human, real, and funny, all while being God. When he speaks to us, he doesn’t blast our minds with something incomprehensible, but teaches us about the nature of prayer with a gritty and goofy analogy. And if, in fact, this brutal widow exemplifies prayer, then you should really let God have it; give him a black eye with your prayers. As Jesus said, “I tell you, [God] will see to it that justice is done for [you] speedily.”

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Saturday, October 12, 2019

"None but this foreigner" - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 17:11-19
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
"Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us!"
And when he saw them, he said,
"Go show yourselves to the priests."
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
"Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?"
Then he said to him, "Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you."


Let’s start with leprosy. In the ancient world ― and for the Jews especially ― leprosy was not something to mess around with. In fact, according to Jewish law, lepers were not allowed to participate in worship ceremonies. Neither were they allowed to live integrated within the Jewish community: “put out of the camp every leper,” the Book of Numbers says, “that they may not defile the camp in the midst of which [God] dwells” (Nm 5:2-3). More than that, in ancient Israel, lepers were required to publicly announce their condition: “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall … cry, “unclean! unclean!” (Lv 13:45). 

Ten of these miserable men met Jesus while he was travelling through Samaria and Galilee. Notice they are following the norms, not daring to approach the crowd: “they stood at a distance from him and raised their voices.” But we should also notice that, where they usually shout to announce their uncleanness, here they shout for help: “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” 

There is a second crucial but somewhat hidden detail to this story. We need to notice how the gospel is at pains to point out that the only leper who returns to thank Jesus is a Samaritan. It makes sense that there would be Samaritans around. Jesus is travelling through Samaria, and Samaritans are from Samaria. But there is more to it than that. The Samaritans were a splinter group within Judaism. They had a different set of priests from the mainstream Jews, they disagreed on which books belonged in the Bible, and they refused to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. In fact, when Jesus told the lepers to “show [themselves] to the priests,” the nine Jewish lepers would have gone to the high priests in Jerusalem while the Samaritan would have gone to the priest on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. 

The point is that mainstream Jews hated Samaritans. They were “foreigners” who worshipped in the wrong Temple. In Jewish literature, the word “Samaritan” was always used derogatorily. In John’s Gospel, a group of Jews even insult Jesus by calling him “a Samaritan” (Jn 8:48). It is no small thing that Jesus heals a Samaritan. Neither is it a small thing when Jesus addresses the Jewish crowd with some sharpness or even sarcasm: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?” Jesus is putting his finger on this religious tension. Indeed, he is being extraordinarily provocative with his Jewish audience: “has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” 

It is important that we see this Samaritan as a real man who suffered through a real life. He was not a character in a parable. We can understand his gratitude. But we can also see in his story something of our own lives. We are lepers, all of us, in our weakness. In truth, we belong outside the camp. We are, all of us, Samaritans. We are, if we’re honest, not quite doing this whole Christianity thing right ― and so we are doubly estranged. But have you noticed that Jesus usually does business with those who are most estranged and broken? That means Jesus has business with us. Even if we are weak, estranged, and broken, let us have the courage ― like the Samaritan did ― to stop shouting “unclean! unclean!” when we look at ourselves and start shouting “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” Surely, should we see it through, we will hear Jesus reply: “Stand up! Go! Your faith has saved you!”

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Friday, October 4, 2019

"What we were obliged to do" - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
"Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
'Come here immediately and take your place at table'?
Would he not rather say to him,
'Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished'?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants; 
we have done what we were obliged to do.'"


Jesus’ words to the apostles sound strange to modern ears: “Who among you would say to your servant … ‘come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not instead say … you may eat and drink when I am finished’?” Not having hired servants, most of us are not entirely sure how we’d manage their dining schedule. Confused with this passage, we usually just move along to the next parable. 

By zooming out, we might get a clearer picture of what Jesus is up to. Since chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem in order to die. All along the way, he’s been offering teachings and parables to the people who are following him along the road. He preached about how the “last will be first” and about the woman who upended her house in search of a single lost coin. He dined with Pharisees and insisted we invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to our banquets. He preached about a father whose mercy runs reckless abandon to embrace his prodigal son. 

This should clarify the opening words of this week’s reading. After spending this time with Jesus ― after being moved by his teaching ― the apostles beg him: “Increase our faith!” Jesus’ reply is a tad painful. He says that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Though it isn’t obvious in English, in the original Greek it is only possible grammatically to read Jesus’ words in one way. He is insisting that the apostles do not in fact have a mustard seed’s worth of faith. They are right to beg for an increase! 

But then Jesus immediately moves into this bit about the time one’s servants should eat dinner. This might seem disconnected, but it is not. Jesus is recalling the basic rules that govern social relations in the households of the ancient world. When a servant comes in from the day’s work, he would proceed to make dinner. It would be absurd if the master of the house immediately invited him to sit down to eat ― the servant himself had not yet made the meal! More than that, Jesus points out to the apostles how strange it would be for the master to shower the servant with praise as he began making the meal: “Is [the master] grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?” Indeed, it was not extraordinary for him to begin making this meal. Based on the agreements proper to his position, the servant was simply doing what he was obliged to do. The servant himself would have found such praise strange.

So how is this relevant to the apostles and their desire for more faith? Again, after hearing him preach, the apostles were struck by the way of life Jesus was offering. His story about the servant is meant to remind the apostles that the way of life Jesus is offering constitutes the basic obligation for a Christian. Household workers in the ancient world had basic obligations. So do Christians. You are to put those who come last in this world first (Lk 13:30), you are to forgive your brother when he wrongs you seven times a day (Lk 17:4). And even when Christians have done all this, they are right to beg for an increase in their faith ― as the apostles did ― for this would only make them“unprofitable servants” who merely “have done what [they] were obliged to do.” 

Jesus’ words reveal something important about the nature of Christian humility. Christians ought not to look on their acts of love as extraordinary, as they are often tempted to do. In Jesus’ mind, acting like a Christian makes you equal to the student who didn’t cheat on her math test. This isn’t something to write home about ― it’s a basic obligation. For Christians, putting those who are last first does not make one extraordinary, it makes one a regular citizen of the Kingdom of God.

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