23 October 2015: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Sir 35:12-14, 16-18 Ps 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18 Lk 18:9-14

Prayer: considering the mystery of God’s grace

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ stories and teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings invite us to think about our prayers and God’s grace.

In the first reading from his wisdom book, Sirach tells us that God is “a God of justice who knows no favorites.” All prayer reaches God, and God does not delay in responding. God’s justice (and God’s corresponding mercy) is at the heart of today’s gospel.

In the second reading from the second letter to Timothy, the author uses a liturgical prayer image familiar to both Jews and Greeks: the pouring of a libation (offering) to God or the gods. The author, speaking as Paul, imagines his blood poured out in sacrifice as an act of worship. God awards all who “keep faith” the crown of righteousness.

Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, which is challenging for two reasons: (1) two interpretations surround the parable, and (2) Jesus’ interpretation can be translated three ways. The gospel consists of the following parts:

  • The parable (v 10-13). Jesus tells his disciples another parable about prayer, continuing last week’s theme. The Pharisee is a meticulous keeper of Mosaic law; the tax collector is an untrustworthy collaborator. Jesus’ first-century hearers would recognize these characters as stereotypes: the super-pious good person, and the cheating, Roman-collaborating bad person. Both go to the Temple to pray at the daily atonement service. Their prayers and attitudes are very different.
  • The first interpretation (v 9). Luke interprets the parable before he tells it. He says Jesus addresses the parable to those who believe they can do without God.
  • The second interpretation (v 14a) and saying (v 14b). Jesus interprets the parable after he tells it. Jesus’ interpretation turns on which person went home justified. The Greek word παρά (pah-RAH) can mean a position (“along with”), a causality (“because of”), or a non-correspondence (“rather than”). The possible translations are:
    1. The tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee [the Lectionary version]. Jesus’ audience would be surprised to hear that God rejects the Pharisee’s prayer but accepts the tax collector’s prayer. While they could understand God rejecting the tax collector because of his work, they would not understand God rejecting the Pharisee-his life is exemplary, even if his prayer is less so.
    2. The tax collector went home justified along with the Pharisee. Jesus’ audience would be more shocked to hear that God accepts the prayers of both men. This translation challenges Jesus’ hearers to realize that God gives grace to all. God decides whom to grace, even if we don’t think God is being “fair.”
    3. The tax collector went home justified because of the Pharisee. Jesus’ audience would be most shocked to hear that God accepts the prayer of the tax collector because of the prayer (and actions) of the Pharisee. This translation challenges Jesus’ hearers to understand that we are all involved in each other’s salvation. We do not “stand alone” or “stand apart;” our actions–good and bad–affect everyone else. God’s gives grace to all, and God’s grace acts on us all, through our interactions with each other.

Scripture scholars call the “whoever exalts himself…” saying a “floating statement” because it appears in several places (Lk 14:11, Lk 18:14, Mt 23:12); it is not uniquely associated with this interpretation.

A possible meaning: The parable presents two flawed humans: the Pharisee more than fulfills the Law but does not need or ask for God’s mercy. The tax collector asks for God’s mercy but does not show a need to live differently. The parable’s meaning is purposely ambiguous, forcing us to decide its meaning. If we hear “only the tax collector went home justified,” the parable is about intent of humans’ flawed prayers (something only God can judge). If we hear “they both went home justified,” the parable is about God’s graciousness rather than humans’ flawed prayers. If we hear “the tax collector went home justified because of the Pharisee,” the parable is about God’s graciousness to the community rather than individual humans’ flawed prayers.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to examine our prayers. Do our prayers express our need for God? Do we pray with or apart from the rest of the believing community? Do we recognize God’s grace and mercy that comes to us through others? Do we pray for ourselves, or for God’s grace?

—Terence Sherlock

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