How We Rich Exclude Ourselves from the Kingdom of God

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
Duly prejudiced
In favor of
The poor, oppressed,
The orphan, and the widow.
God listens to them
And affirms
Their rights
To speedy justice.
 
 
 
PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
 
Yes, be thankful and glad
That God hears
The cry of the poor
The brokenhearted
And those whose spirits
Have been crushed
By oppressors
Whose names
Will soon
Be forgotten.
 
2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18
 
The apostle Paul was
One of the oppressed.
He kept faith
In God’s justice
Even during
His rigged
Imperial trial
When his friends
Abandoned him.
Though exhausted
Like a long-distance runner
Or a gladiator
Before a lion,
He nonetheless
Felt God’s presence
As his source
Of strength and courage
Enabling him
To proclaim
God’s Kingdom
To everyone.
.
 
2 COR 5:19
 
God’s preferential
Option for the poor
Is the very message
Of Jesus, the Christ.
It can save the world.
 
LK 18: 9-14
 
Jesus’ parable
Of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
Taught that
Self-justifying
Conventional morality
Is not pleasing to God –
Not even when supported
By long prayers,
Generous tithes,
Sexual purity,
And frequent fasting.
(Yes, the Pharisee
Did all of that!)
Instead,
Entrance into God’s Kingdom
Requires nothing
But membership
In the group
Considered sinful
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.

Hondurans “Crossing Over” into the United States Are Today’s “Hebrews”: They Are God’s Chosen People!

Refugee Caravan

Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 31:7-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Heb. 5:1-6; Mk. 10: 46-52

Today’s Gospel reading centralizes spiritual blindness and the nature of the cure Jesus offers. By extension, it provides perspective on the caravan of more than 6000 Central Americans (mostly Hondurans) currently approaching our southern border.

True: on the surface, the episode is simply about Jesus working yet another miracle – this time for the sightless beggar called Bartimaeus. However, in reality the story represents two fundamental biblical paradigms — one describes the true nature of conversion. The other identifies God’s “Chosen People.”

Let me unpack all of that.

Begin by recalling the relevant story as written by Mark.

A blind man is sitting by the roadside. His garment is spread out on the ground before him. The cloak invites passers-by to throw a coin on its fabric. Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is near accompanied by a large crowd. So, he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”

Jesus’ followers try to shut the man up. But the beggar won’t hear of it. He shouts even louder, “JESUS HAVE PITY ON ME!”

Finally, Jesus hears the blind man’s voice over the crowd’s din. He calls him over. The man jumps up and throws aside his garment (his only source of income). [In other words, unlike the Rich Young Man Mark presented two weeks ago (MK 10:17-30), this specifically poor man has no trouble renouncing everything he has and confronting the Master empty-handed.]

So, Jesus asks, “What would you have me do?”

The man responds, “I want to see!” Jesus replies, “Your faith has saved you.” So, the blind man is given sight. He then follows Jesus “on the way” of non-violent compassion.

Bartimaeus, then, is a model of conversion.

In performing this wonder, Jesus was acting as compassion itself. As a prophet, he was following in the footsteps of Jeremiah whose words we read in this morning’s first reading. There Jeremiah was a spokesperson for a God announcing good news specifically to women, their children, the exiled, blind, and lame. As today’s readings from the Book of Psalms recalls, that God makes such people’s dreams come true, and turns their tears to laughter, not to guilt and shame.

And that brings me to the Honduran Caravan presently approaching our borders. They say that this caravan of more than 6000 people, mostly from Honduras, constitutes the largest mass exodus we’ve ever seen in this hemisphere.

When I say “Exodus,” I’m choosing my words carefully. The word is loaded, as it recalls the key Jewish Testament paradigm I mentioned earlier. The word reminds us of the original “Exodus,” when a motley horde of slaves stormed the borders of what we now call Palestine.

For Jews today, that first Exodus was the beginning of Hebrew history. In fact, the word Hebrew means the people who cross-over or pass through. Again, that refers to the origins of the ones who thought of themselves as The People of God – as God’s chosen ones. According to their tradition, the Hebrew refugees were God’s chosen ones — God’s favorites.

The Cross-Over People were seeking land. They thought of themselves as on a divinely-inspired mission to take possession of acreage from those who had too much of it. The refugee-invaders believed that the earth belongs to God, and that God’s intention is a world with room for everyone – not just for those who have sufficient resources to claim ownership of the Great Commons God created.

However, such claims made no difference to rich Canaanite landowners. Like many today, they had appropriated the Great Commons as their own. And in doing so (at least according to the Cross-Over People) they transgressed God’s fundamental intention.

As would-be followers of Jesus, self-proclaimed Christians (as well as all Jews) should be the first to recognize and welcome today’s Cross-Over People as contemporary Hebrews.

Moreover, in the case of Hondurans, we should be clear in drawing connections between our government’s oppressive policies that have created the conditions the Hondurans desire to escape. Our government has treated them the way the Egyptian Pharaohs treated their Hebrew slaves. To wit, remember:

• The decades-long support of the United Brands (now Chiquita) Banana company against workers seeking higher wages and better living conditions.
• The wars waged by the U.S. in Central America all during the 1980s.
• The Central American Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that disemployed small farmers and removed protections from workers throughout the region and in Honduras specifically.
• The United States-supported military overthrow of the democratically elected Honduran government in 2009
• U.S. support of the current Honduran president who was elected in a fraudulent election.

With all of this in mind, our prayer today should be, “Lord, I want to see. Help me to ignore those (including those claiming to be your followers) who would shut me up. Lord, let me hear instead the voices of the poor, the widows, orphans, and refugees. Cure my blindness to the true identity of your people. Help me to voice my fearless support for the Honduran refugees.”