I haven’t Blogged much lately. I’ve been thinking about writing things but work just keeps me too busy. But I was on the roster at church this week and managed to throw together a reflection on the readings. I used these first reading, psalm and gospel and added in Marina by T.S. Eliot (an old favourite of mine as regular readers know) as the 2nd reading.
I spoke without having written down my thoughts, because now that I teach and lecture that seems easier than reading…but later I reconstructed more-or-less what I had said. I also used a “Eucharistic prayer” that I wrote back in March but hadn’t had an opportunity to use today. It’s been sitting in a cupboard at church with noone aware it exists. It focusses on the earth.
Here is my “reflection” on the readings:
I grew up with a “face value” reading of today’s gospel which I didn’t (in retrospect) find very helpful. In this way of thinking the Pharisee was wrong for thinking so highly of himself, whereas the tax collector was to be emulated as being humble and not thinking well of himself. I cultivated my low self esteem carefully, thinking it was virtuous to do so. It became self-hate and was quite a toxic thing to live with. I want to be careful today not to repeat the same mistake, to look with a more nuanced eye at today’s parable.
Parables are not simple surface-level morality tales anyway. They are meant to deeply challenge us, to niggle away at the things we think we know and invite us to come deeper, experiencing otherness rather than analysing it from the sidelines. Our experience of a parable should be a long journey of learning not a point of revelation or answers. Today’s section of the journey will be looking through the lens of the first reading. When the lectionary gives us groups of readings it is an invitation to consider them together and in light of each other.
So I will look back on Sirach. This reading is about God being responsive and empathetic to the plight of any who suffer from not being heard or having their needs disregarded. God desires justice and will advocate for the widow and the socially, materially or emotionally vulnerable. The reading also has teeth- although I don’t like the violence sometimes present in the Hebrew scriptures I feel there is a risk when we sanitise our tradition too much. God break’s scepters, acts with anger and destruction toward those who hold unjust power. From our vantage point in a wealthy, overconsuming, exploitative country we would do well not to sanitise this part of our faith out.
But the focus is certainly comfort for the oppressed. God is not neutral is clearly taking sides here. This is consistent with a 20th century Catholic teaching that used to be spoken about more- that God has a “preferential option for the poor”. God is present in the relationships and angry at the inequities of our social world.
So if we take this social justice focus back to the gospel, how to we view the two men in Jesus’ parable? The pharisee is not wrong to think well of himself and his achievements, but he is displaying a faith that is performative rather than relational. His focus is on impressing other people, comparing himself and feeling superior to others who he can pre-judge at a glance. He has filled in all his spiritual KPIs but become separated from other human beings.
The tax-collector has no such shield against the world. He has come to God with his vulnerability, his knowledge of his own failings. I am probably projecting a modern-day understanding onto him if I talk about his awareness of privilege, but I will try to explore that idea in view of what tax-collectors were and did in Jesus’ day. The Roman Empire used to impose taxes on the people- these could be crippling, and the men who collected them added their own fee to the tax they collected. They were hated in part because people hated paying the taxes, but also because many of them may have added on an exorbitant fee and so enriched themselves.
A tax-collector then might be caught between the competing demands of his family (who will struggle or starve without his income) and the injustice and imbalance of the empire’s taxes and perhaps his own added fees. He is caught up in a system of injustice and oppression, not just caught up in a web of dependency but maybe even benefiting from it. We know this too, that although there is much that is wrong with the world these days we are often the ones who benefit from the inequitable distribution of wealth and the exploitation and demonisation of others. The tax collector brings his awareness and his worry to God, not able to find answers but showing a willingness to let God inform and infuse his life for a better future. Jesus says that he rather than the escapist priest is the one “justified”.
What does this mean? How does it help to be “justified”?
What is it that we come to church for?
Dare we be honest and less than shiny before God…and what does this look like?
If God listens to the poor and oppressed, what is our role in all of this?
There are no answers in the back of the book, but we can reflect on these challenges and share our thoughts with each other.