Gospel Reflection for Sunday the 23rd of October 2022

Gospel Reflection for  Sunday the 23rd of October 2022

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Luke 18:9-14

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. (Luke 18:13)

In the Marvel movie Dr Strange (2016), Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a renowned neurosurgeon who is quite arrogant and self-assured. However, after a serious car accident, his career is ended because he loses the use of his hands. Strange hits rock bottom and when traditional medicine fails, he seeks healing and hope, and he begins a journey of self- discovery and spiritual enlightenment. Eventually he discovers his powers and becomes a super hero! In similar moments in our lives – a relationship break-up, a failed exam, losing a job, or a betrayal of trust or friendship, we can experience humiliation; we are humbled and we may learn a valuable lesson in life. One way of learning humility is facing a humiliation, embracing the reality-check it presents to us, and accepting the truth of who we really are. Within the root of the Latin word for humility – “humilitas” is “humus” meaning “soil” or “ground”; in a sense to be humbled is to be grounded. Hence humility can be the virtue which forms the foundation of our spiritual lives and the basis for growth.

Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 18: 9-14) presents us with a comparison in the parable where the Pharisee, the most pious and devout figure of the time, and the tax collector, the public sinner, par excellence. If we look closely at both characters there is both the Pharisee and the tax collector in each us. The Pharisee, a term which means “separated one”, belongs to a group who set themselves apart in striving to be ritually clean and righteous before God. The Pharisee stands before God, which is not a humble posture. He begins his prayer with “I thank you God…” (Luke 18:11). Gratitude is a good disposition to begin with in prayer. However, this prayer turns from gratitude to harsh judgement and pride: “I thank God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind”. Instead of humbly thanking God, he uses prayer to express his own self-importance and deliberately divides himself from his fellow men and women, including this tax collector. This self-referential prayer does not acknowledge his own sinfulness, the common weak condition shared by all of humanity. This Pharisee has a DIY or Pelagian approach to the spiritual life, depending solely on his own will power and not on God’s grace. The Pharisee continues to “canonize himself” as he presents his spiritual resumé to God: “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get”. These practices of fasting and paying tithes actually demonstrate that this man is going above and beyond his obligations (as outlined in Deuteronomy 14:22) in an attempt to live at a high standard of spiritual perfection. This Pharisee talks at God and not with him; it is a monologue, not a dialogue. He asks nothing from God because he does not feel needy or in debt, but he feels that God owes something to him. Pope Francis remarks on this Gospel – “He stands in the temple of God, but he worships a different god: himself” (27 Oct 2019). There is more of the Pharisee in each of us than we would like to admit. How often do we pride ourselves on our own spiritual practices to the point of comparing ourselves to others and judging harshly?

The spirituality of the Dutch Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen focuses on the fact that the love of the world is conditional and compels us to prove our worth constantly through success, or popularity or productivity. However, Nouwen taught that our Christian faith invites us to simply accept the truth of God’s unconditional love, which is not earned or merited, reveals how we are God’s beloved; and we are called to reverence that beloved-ness in each human person. The Pharisee seems to boast of his spiritual achievements in order to prove himself before God while the tax collector simply places himself into the merciful love of God.

The tax collector was despised by the Jews as he cooperated with the occupying Roman forces to exploit his own people. Hence a tax-collector would have been isolated from his community and deemed unclean and unworthy of worshipping God as he was contaminated by corruption. This tax collector stands “some distance away”; and he feels so unworthy; he cannot declare before God that he has kept fasts or paid tithes or is as upright as the Pharisee. He does not begin from his own merits but from his shortcomings; not from his riches but from poverty. His is not an economic poverty, but a poverty of life. He prays to God from the heart; this is expressed by him beating “his breast” (Luke 18: 13) in a penitential act. Pope Francis, reflecting on this Gospel, teaches us that the prayer of the tax collector is “born straight from the heart” and “he places his heart before God, not outward appearances”. Pope Francis continues: “To pray is to stand before God’s eyes – it is God looking at me when I pray – without illusions, excuses or justifications… Because from the devil come darkness and lies – these are our self-justifications; from God comes light and truth, transparency of my heart” (27 October 2019).

The prayer of the tax collector – “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (known as the Jesus prayer) captures so much – it acknowledges who God is, and who he is before God. He cries out humbly to God, who is merciful and he declares that he is a sinner. This is a heartfelt prayer of truth, honesty and integrity; there is no self-inflation here; he is presenting himself before God in all his vulnerability; and he is open to receiving from God. This Gospel teaches us to pray from the heart because the heart is the “place of truth”, “the place of encounter”, and “the place of covenant” with God (CCC 2563). In this way, we learn the virtue of humility; we learn to face the truth about ourselves, and about God; hence we follow the pattern of Jesus, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (c.f. Philippians 2: 6- 11). Humility is not about beating ourselves up or developing a lower-self-esteem; humility is accepting the truth of who we are, in all our goodness and brokenness. We grow in the virtue of humility by praying for this gift; we can pray the Litany of Humility regularly; and we can learn from humiliating or humbling experiences. Without humility we can become entitled, complacent, and even arrogant; but with humility we can act with integrity and learn to appreciate others more.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14)

-Fr Barry White