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Homily notes: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 27 October

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  17 October 2019

Lectionary readings
First reading: Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14, 16-19
Psalm: 32(33):2-3, 17-19, 23
Second reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

Link to readings 

The readings today – at least the First Reading, from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 35:12-14, 16-19) and the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14) – are, like those of last week, concerned with prayer. Now, however, the issue is not so much persistence in prayer as the kind of person whose prayer is most likely to receive a favourable hearing from God.

The First Reading makes clear that the Lord does not grant favours like the powerful in this world. They are inclined to give a hearing to people of influence and prestige, people who “present well”. The Lord, on the contrary, is no “respecter of personages” but ever more inclined to listen to those in the greatest distress.

Attractively, the text speaks of the Lord as ready to “listen” to the widow “as she pours out her story”. Nothing, surely, is more important when people are distressed as to listen to their story. In some situations that is all we can do, but it is already a very great deal. The text, then, shows us what prayer is all about: baring a sincere heart to the Lord, who listens to our story and, our whole life long, waits till we have told it to the end.

Those the Lord hears

The parable in the Gospel targets “some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else”. Whereas, as the First Reading has just reminded us, “The humble person’s prayer pierces the clouds”, such people are not going to get a good hearing from God. The characters in the parable illustrate these two radically different ways of coming before the Lord in prayer.

In a strongly religious society the issue as to who is virtuous and who is not will always be prominent. In the milieu of Jesus, the gospels particularly associate such concern with the Pharisees. In preaching, however, we must be careful not to reinforce the view that the kind of judgmental behavior represented by the Pharisee in this parable was typical of Pharisees in general, let alone of Judaism as a religion. It is to be found in all religions, Christianity included.

Whereas in prayer the focus should be upon God, the concentration of this Pharisee rests upon himself. Worse, it is also upon the failings of his fellow human beings. Before enumerating all his own virtues – things quite admirable in themselves from a religious point of view – this person sets himself apart from the sinful mass of humankind (“thieves, rogues, adulterers”). How convenient for him that a representative of these kind of people is right here at hand in the person of the tax-collector.

God issues the prizes

The Pharisee illustrates the attitude of those who can only bolster their own self-image by putting down others. For such people life is a competition in virtue. God assesses the results and issues the prizes. Prayer is an opportunity to keep God informed about one’s own success and also about the shortcomings of others. As so often in Jesus’ parables, it is all a bit of a caricature. But nonetheless, if we are honest, we can ask ourselves how often we catch ourselves out doing much the same?

The tax-collector, by contrast, stands down the back simply pleading that God be merciful to him, a sinner. In what sense sinner? Because of personal moral failure, for which he now repents? We should not immediately jump to this conclusion. Could it simply be that he finds himself trapped in an occupation that makes him a sinner in his own eyes and those of his world – an occupation which, perhaps, with a family to support and no other job possibilities, he cannot simply abandon? All this the parable leaves open. In any case, as Jesus points out, God’s view reverses both verdicts. The one who came to God’s house in his own eyes a sinner went home with God’s favour (“justified”); the one so sure of his virtue went home without it.

Divine verdict

This double divine verdict recorded in the parable could offer comfort to many people today who find themselves or their loved ones (for example, their children) caught in situations judged objectively “sinful” on more traditional thinking whether in the area of sexuality, or marital involvement or professional occupation. In a complex world, loyalties often run in several directions. The application of general moral rules and norms to individual lives requires sympathy and pastoral understanding of the pressures and burdens most people have to bear. The parable suggests that God’s view, at any rate, does not always run simply along conventional lines. The divine impulse is always towards acceptance, mercy and liberation.

The confidence expressed by Paul as he reviews his life in the Second Reading, 2 Tim 4:6–8, 16–18, looks not so much to his own achievements but to the generosity and faithfulness of God.



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