Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14.
“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened today’s familiar gospel parable with the words “A pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray.” Even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence was like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all? Why would a tax collector?
Despite its shocking overtones, homilists generally domesticate this parable to make it reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.
Crossan however says that there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.
More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised who are celebrated throughout today’s liturgy of the word. The parable and its supporting readings also explain why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God, which in Jesus’ understanding is never about life after death, but a this-worldly reality where God is king instead of Caesar.
Please give a listen to the readings. You can find them here. My “translations” run as follows:
SIR 35: 1-14, 16-18
God’ justice reverses
The world’s preferential option
For the rich.
It is instead
In favor of
The poor, oppressed,
The orphan, and the widow.
God listens to them
To speedy justice.
PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
Yes, be thankful and glad
That God hears
The cry of the poor
And those whose spirits
Have been crushed
2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18
The apostle Paul was
One of the oppressed.
He kept faith
In God’s justice
When his friends
Like a long-distance runner
Or a gladiator
Before a lion,
Felt God’s presence
As his source
Of strength and courage
2 COR 5:19
Option for the poor
Is the very message
Of Jesus, the Christ.
It can save the world.
LK 18: 9-14
Of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
Is not pleasing to God –
Not even when supported
By long prayers,
And frequent fasting.
(Yes, the Pharisee
Did all of that!)
Entrance into God’s Kingdom
In the group
By us pharisees and
Our conventional morality.
To unpack those readings, first of all, think of the last one in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.
Pharisees in Jesus’ time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.
Generally, Pharisees were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.
On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.
In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.
But we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?
Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”
Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.
And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: “I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?
I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer. Each reading is about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”
However, all of them – even the worst – were especially dear to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”
But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.
Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.
The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.
Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.
Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with people of color – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.
Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto, the barrio or favela. Rich white people don’t want to be there.
Yes, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” among us are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!
This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.
So, today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It’s not even a celebration of imagined virtue on the part of the poor or about repentance. It rejects all such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.
As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God, about those who belong and about us who exclude ourselves.