Readings (Year C):
Reflection: God hears the cry of the poor
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s gospel is addressed to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” The parable’s message goes further than to simply encourage generic humility. Jesus targets the disdain for others at the core of this particular type of spiritual pride. It is not only the confidence of the Pharisee that is amiss here, but, more deeply, the hatred and disgust it produces and justifies.
This poisonous religious attitude shares many qualities with xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. It may seem odd for the prideful prayer of the Pharisee to be understood as fear, but this reversal allows us to see the true courage in the prayer of the tax collector. Perhaps this is part of why the latter goes home justified and the former does not. The tax collector’s humility allows him to present himself before the Lord with an honesty that the Pharisee, for all his merits, cannot. Furthermore, the sinful tax collector asking for the mercy of God is not led to despise the Pharisee in the way the Pharisee and Jesus’ intended audience despise everyone else.
There is a sense in which the objective and concrete goodness of the Pharisee has become an obstacle that leads him into self-deception and hatred of the world and others. In the same way, there is a sense in which the real sins of the tax collector awaken his conscience with enough self-knowledge to repent and seek mercy. Perhaps the lesson here is that a goodness that leads to moral slumber can bear evil fruits like xenophobia just as the sin that awakens our conscience can bear the good fruit of humility and mercy.
In the second reading, we hear Paul writing to Timothy. Paul was a Pharisee. And his words share some of the characteristics of the Pharisee of our gospel’s parable. But there is a crucial difference: there is no disdain nor hatred. Paul’s vision of justification is for all. “The Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me,” Paul insists, “but to all who have longed for his appearance.” Paul wishes no evil even to those who deserted and harmed him, exclaiming, “May it not be held against them!” In many ways, Paul appears as someone who has absorbed the message of our gospel’s parable.
The first reading from the Old Testament offers a more poetic and mystical account of what we heard from the New. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” Here, the cry of the oppressed carries an insistence that is different from the Pharisee, the tax collector, and even Paul. Unlike these men, the widow and the orphan summon a demand and priority that God more than justifies. Here, mercy abounds and salvation feels qualitatively different. It is immediate. God not only hears the cry of the poor; in Christ, God also speaks from very the same poverty.