A Prayer Lesson

The readings for Sunday, October 23, 2016, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Ecclesiastes Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18:9-14.

Another parable — this one aimed at a fault common to many, and not just in the time of Jesus or the time of Luke. The parable addresses “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised others.” The probable meaning of “their own righteousness” in this context: reliance on one’s own good deeds to find acceptance before God. The parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray. One belonged to the party of the Pharisees, but the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee proudly took his standing position and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humankind — extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or also like this here tax collector.” Having separated himself from those who in his opinion were human trash, he boasts of his pious deeds. “I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all I acquire.”
The titles Luke chooses for the proud man to bestow on those he despises are well chosen in view of the humble petitioner present in the temple at the same time. Some tax collectors did practice extortion. The title “unrighteous” is the direct opposite of those who proclaimed “their own righteousness.” If anyone at all was considered unrighteous, tax collectors were at the top of the list. These men bought tax collecting franchises from the Roman occupying authorities in Palestine to collect taxes from their fellow-Jews, thus considered agents of oppression collaborating with the Romans. They were thought of as the ultimate sinners and were deprived of most civil rights. They were tainted.

Fasting twice a week — According to Jewish and Christian sources there was a Jewish custom of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. In an early Christian source we read this not so loving advice to Christians, “Let not your fasting be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but you must fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.” Thus we see at least part of the reason, prejudicial at that, for the origin of Christian fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.

On to the attitude and words of the tax collector’s prayer. Luke notes that he “stood far off and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” The tax collector has no prayer of thanksgiving for his own greatness. The proud man’s prayer was I-centered (five times). In the tax collector’s prayer he is the hoped for object of God’s mercy. Therefore not “I” five times, but “me” once. No contempt for others by labeling them, but only self-abasement in recognition of his own sinfulness. His is only a prayer of petition for forgiveness and mercy. The proud man needs none of that.
Luke next proclaims who was really righteous, justified, accepted by God. “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) returned to his house justified (accepted as righteous) beyond the other one.” Being acceptable to God is not achieved through self-reliant activities and boasting about them, but through humility, sincerity, recognition of one’s own limitations and reliance on God. The latter are the attitudes that Luke incorporated into Mary’s Hymn, the Magnificat. “He has looked upon the lowly condition of his handmaid. He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their throne and has exalted the humble.” Thus Luke closes the story with an oft-quoted saying of Jesus, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The fact that the Lucan Jesus chooses to present a Pharisee as the self-righteous visitor to the temple is in keeping with other negative depictions of this group. They were for the most part men and women who did their best to observe not only the laws of the Torah (Teaching) of Moses, but also the traditions that evolved to safeguard the observance of those sacred laws. The reason why they get such bad press in the Gospels is not that they were a bunch of fakes, but because the only identifiable leaders of Judaism after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. were of the Pharisee party. They were the great scribes who through interpretation of their Scriptures developed the guidance that could no longer come from priesthood and temple. This emerging Judaism came into serious conflict over another emerging “Jewish” movement — Christianity. Conflict between these two movements is reflected in the negative portrayal of Pharisees in our four Gospels.