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October 23 2016 (C) Thirtieth Sunday of the Year

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Do no be haughty, but associate with the lowly

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14, 16-19). The humble person’s prayer pierces the clouds. The book of Jesus Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) from which this reading is taken is part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Israel’s early wisdom literature originated in the human reflection on life and human behaviour, without any reference to the covenant with God. Good part of Ben Sira’s book belongs to this approach, although he also does unite this approach with the covenant, devotion and the Law of Moses. Ben Sira was a Jewish sage who had a school for imparting this wisdom approach in Jerusalem. He composed his book about the year 180 B.C. In the passage read today he speaks from his human experience and from his religious inheritance. The biblical context to which the passage belongs speaks of God as the just and impartial judge who does not neglect those in distress. The pleas of the devout and the humble pierce the clouds and reach God’s heavenly throne. God will not be slow to come to their assistence.The passage stresses the special status of the lowly and the humble in God’s sight, and as such is well chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 32[33]). This poor man called; the Lord heard him.

Second Reading (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18). All there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me. In this letter we have the beautiful testament of Paul. It is not likely that the Pastoral Letters were penned by Paul, but rather come from a generation after his death, a generation that looks back at Paul’s life and labours and at the heritage he has left behind. His epitaph is now placed on Paul’s own lips, in words that if not from him are worthy of his eloquence: “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith”. He tells Timothy that his end is near. He uses two images in this description. The first is that his end is presented as sacrifice. He is already being poured out as a libation. Paul had already used similar language when writing to the Philippians (2:17), on an occasion when his life may have been in danger. “Even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice”. Just as libations of wine, water or oil were poured on sacrifices, so shall Paul’s blood be shed in martyrdom. The second image he uses is that of departure, like a ship leaving harbour. He uses two further images with regard to his life’s work: a fight and a race. Timothy and his fellow Christians would know full well the fight and the battles Paul was engaged in, from the first moment of his call by Christ on the Damascus road to the very end, his struggles to bring faith in Christ to the pagans, salvation through faith in Christ alone without the observance of the Jewish law. Paul’s letters to the churches provide ample evidence of all this. He has run the race and kept the faith. Writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) Paul spoke of the perishable wreath ardently sought after by athletes, unlike the imperishable one in store for Christians. The crown of righteousness now awaited Paul, and all faithful Christians. In the second section of this reading Paul tells how he was deserted by everyone at his first defence. We do not know what the circumstances of the trial were; possibly during the Roman persecution of Nero. Neither do we know who the pagans who listened to his message were; possibly those connected with his imprisonment. This will be Paul’s last fight as he awaits to be taken safely to the Lord’s heavenly kingdom. His parting words are a fitting end to this his testament: “To him (the Lord) be glory for ever and ever. Amen”.

The Gospel (Luke 18:9-14). The publican went home at rights with God; the Pharisee did not. The opening introduction to this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (publican) tells us that Jesus spoke this parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else. This is an indication that such people existed in Jesus’ own day. The two classes in question, and the relevance of the parable, hold for all ages, our own included. To make his point clear Jesus takes a person who could stand for each of these two groups. As a group the Pharisees were renowned for the meticulous observance of the biblical laws, and the many laws of their own Pharisaic tradition. The tax collectors (publicans) had a bad name in that they exacted taxes beyond what was legally required to enrich themselves. They were also often suspect of collaboration with the foreign Roman power. Jesus was not anti-Pharisee as such, at least in Luke’s Gospel, where he is on occasion represented as dining with them, and being invited to meals by them. The Pharisee believed that his devotional practices, traditional in Judaism (fasting twice a week, paying tithes, often on items beyond what would normally be expected), were sufficient to make him “justified”, at rights, with God. He was, as it were, telling God in his prayer how “righteous” he was. There was no indication of any sinfulness, or payer for forgiveness. It was quite the opposite with the tax collector. The Pharisee would have believed that he had earned a right relationship with God through his “good” works; that he had earned righteousness through them. But righteousness is a free gift of God, which was conferred by God on the tax collector, who went home “justified”, at rights with God, while the Pharisee did not. The lesson drawn, and to be drawn, from the parable is the importance of humility, of a humble consideration of oneself, in God’s presence.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Do no be haughty, but associate with the lowly

Jesus used very harsh words on hypocrisy and hypocrites, on people who were accustomed to draw attention to themselves through their observance of the three pious practices of Judaism, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. He also criticized the Pharisees, and the scribes of the Pharisee tradition, for their undue attention to the external cleanness of vessels and other objects, while neglecting inner cleanness and higher values. These were all matters concerning Jewish practices. In today’s parable, although the two chosen to represent two groups were Jews, the traits of both the Pharisee and the tax collector could stand for persons of any age, including our own. It behoves the human person, in any age, to be lowly and humble in God’s presence, aware of his own human weakness and the weakness of human nature, as well as being aware of the All-Holiness of God, who understands and is concerned for all his creatures, the sinner included, in fact in particular the sinner. Today’s parable directs our attention to that.

            Writing to the Romans Paul puts the essence of today’s parable is a few words: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (Romans 12:15-16). The same teaching is given repeatedly by Paul and other New Testament writers. It would take a treatise to present all the evidence: love of the neighbour, attending to the other’s welfare rather to one’s own. The idea is represented in the Irish proverb that people live with mutual support, under one another’s shadow. In this sense, with Paul’s statement, the New Testament teaching is very socialistic. Greater knowledge of this New Testament teaching is worth recalling.