Sunday 27 October 2019
Ecclesiasticus 35:12-17; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
By Duncan Macpherson
Features Editor, Roman Catholic Permanent Deacon, retired Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham
Context: a Sunday Eucharist in a largely suburban parish in a mainly well-off locality
Aim: to stress that we have no claim on God’s mercy except for our need and that it is in that spirit that we extend his mercy to others
Some other churches celebrate Mission Sunday in February but, in the Catholic Church, today it is World Mission Sunday, celebrating the mercy of God by spreading his love by supporting the missionary work of the Church. and the missionary work of the Church is not only about spreading the message but also involves bringing help to those who are most in need. We heard in the first reading that God ‘does not ignore the orphan’s supplication, nor the widow’s as she pours out her story.’ And nor should we. I know this congregation will be more than generous.
The Papal Knight and the Loan Shark
In some ways we might be inspired by the example of a papal knight in my story. He got his decoration because he was a generous supporter of the missions as well as lots of other good causes. He went to Mass every day, never over-indulged, was always faithful to his marriage vows and never cheated anyone in business. Perhaps he couldn’t really help feeling a bit smug when he went into the cathedral to pray. The loan shark wandered into the same cathedral and sat down at the back. Suddenly it dawned on him that he was under the judgement of God for all the people whose lives he had ruined. He knew that he was a grasping, selfish rogue. Then, in a moment of sincere repentance he prayed and asked for the mercy he had never shown to others. Amazingly, his prayer was heard while that of papal knight was not.
I tried to find this modern parallel because sometimes we hear the Gospel stories that Jesus told so often, and we miss the point. The world he talks about is in some ways different from our own. We call people we don’t like ‘Pharisees’ but we don’t know any real Pharisees They lived exemplary, religious lives, trying to keep the law as perfectly as possible so as to the usher in the golden age when the Messiah would come to rule the world.
Missing the point
Because we are used to thinking the Pharisees were so awful, we miss the point that they were the kind of people we would have thought an asset to any parish or Christian community. Where would be without our Pharisees? They are reliable pillars of the Church. They are involved in parish activities some of them might even become deacons! Religion for them is very important but it can easily become an end rather than a means. The Pharisee prays but he is not talking to God but to himself.
However, it is no good comparing today’s tax collectors with those at the time of Jesus. Tax collectors today are simply civil servants doing their job. The tax collectors of Jesus’ time were part of a group who squeezed as much as possible out of people so that they could pay the Romans and still have a fat profit left over. They were worse that the modern loan shark because they weren’t only ripping people off, they were doing it for the enemy occupier. The words of Jesus in the Gospel must have caused real offence to the respectable pious people who heard him caricature the presumption of the Pharisee in the parable.
A great reversal
But what is bad news for the Pharisee is good news for the sinful tax collector: ‘This man went home again at rights with God …’ The tax collector stood some distance away: the distance between the two was both ritual and social but, as Augustine tells us, ‘the tax-collector stood far away yet drew nearer to God.’
Like the parable of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the Tax collector and the Pharisee, this is a warning for the self-righteous. Both parables, like so many of the parables of Jesus, are parables of role reversal: the mighty being put down from the thrones and the humble and the weak exalted; the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away.
So, am I the tax collector or the Pharisee? Of course, I am both. It is bad news for me when I admire my own virtue and achievement without realising that all I have or achieve is pure gift. When I give for World Mission Sunday, I am giving away something that is not really mine—no need to feel smug about how much I give! and the parable is bad news if I compare myself favourably with others. It is good news for me if I can identify with the tax collector or the loan shark. Paul tells us ‘We who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.’ Like the tax collector we know that we have no claim on God’s mercy—it is pure gift. We have been set free from worrying about achievement, about what we have accomplished. and we have been set free from guilt and failure.
In the Eucharist we approach God as forgiven sinners with the certain knowledge that we are loved and accepted by God’s grace alone. We have no claim on God’s mercy except for our need and our openness to receive it. It is in that spirit that we extend his mercy to others through our giving, on World Mission Sunday.
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