Monday, October 29, 2007

Year C, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir. 35,12-14.16-18; Ps 34, 2-3.17-19.23; 2 Tim. 4,6-8.16-18; Lk 18,9-14

"The LORD is a God of justice" (Sir. 35,12). So begins our first reading from the book of Jesus ben Sirach. What does he mean, we might well ask? The answer could not be simpler, God is just because God "knows no favorites" (Sir. 35,12). In other words, in the eyes of God, as with any loving father of more than one child, each of us is equally beloved. Nonetheless, while not "unduly partial toward the weak," God "hears the cry of the oppressed" (Sir. 35,13). Indeed, as the Psalmist sings, "The Lord hears the cry of the poor" (Ps. 34).

That God, while remaining just and impartial, "identifies with the victims in the world’s history," observes Dr. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, is demonstrated by "the fact that the bearer of his grace and power in our history," Jesus Christ, "is one who can be described as 'purely' victim, in no way the perpetrator of diminishing and excluding violence" (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel 17). The book of Sirach, while originally written in Hebrew, has come down to us in Greek. The Greek text suggests that God not only hears the cry of the oppressed, but that God yields to their requests. Sr. Dianne Bergant writes that it is "almost as if God is bound to respond positively to [the poor and the oppressed]. As a covenant partner God is accountable to them, especially when other covenant partners disregard their responsibilities" (Preaching the New Lectionary: Year C 397). The surprise in both this first reading and the Gospel is that those considered unacceptable in ancient Jewish social and religious circles are the very ones whose prayers God heeds. Their prayer is proper prayer. That God has chosen to take the side of the poor and to pay special attention to the prayer of the lowly is what connects our first reading to today’s Gospel.

Today’ Gospel allows us to connect some dots, the dots are those of personal spirituality and living justly, or, put in a more familiar manner, to see how love of neighbor flows from love of God. Discerning this connection is absolutely essential for anybody who would follow Christ. On this basis we can posit two pillars of the Christian life: prayer and growth in holiness, or human flourishing. Holiness cannot happen; we cannot flourish, without prayer anymore than we can live without breathing. It is from our own fundamental relationship with God that not only do we, like St. Paul, derive our strength to live to justly, but it is also from this relationship that we derive our very desire to live just, holy, lives. The lesson that we must continually re-learn, it seems, is that happiness does not lie in being self-contained. Rather, happiness comes from allowing God to stretch us open to love others. In other words, holiness consists "in being turned outwards" (Timothy Radcliffe, OP What is the Point of Being a Christian? 51).

Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matt. 5,3). In the Jewish scriptures the poor- the anawim- are those without material possessions. In his teaching, our Lord adds "in spirit" in order to extend God’s favor to all, regardless of social rank, in keeping with God’s impartiality. To be poor in spirit means to acknowledge our complete and utter dependence on God, no matter whether we are rich or poor. It is this acknowledgement that makes the prayer of the tax collector the acceptable prayer.

Because he was a tax collector, we can be assured that this man was materially well-off, even if he was a social pariah among his fellow Jews. But, he is the one who gives witness to what it means to be poor in spirit. The pharisaical temptation is to begin to think that we are justified by our own actions and our own prayer. Therefore, if we are to go home justified today, we must pray and then seek to live in the humble spirit of the tax collector. This is why, just before receiving communion, we will acknowledge together, to each other, and to God that we "are not worthy to receive" Christ and that it is only through God’s saving word that we are healed and made worthy. To ever think we are more worthy to receive Christ than anybody else, is, like the Pharisee, to fall prey to a fatal deception.

Prayer is the means by which we enter into and maintain an intimate relationship with God. Hence, along with the sacraments, prayer is a means of attaining holiness which John O’Donohue describes as being "able to rest in the house of belonging that we call the soul (Anam Chara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom 23). Nonetheless, our final justification is dependent on our humility, on our continual, honest acknowledgement of who we are before our just, but ultimately merciful and loving God. We know from our experience that it is difficult to pray like the tax collector. We also know that it is difficult to be faithful in prayer, to take time out each day to be nurtured and strengthened by God, who, in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can address as Abba, Father. The "real protagonist of history," according to Msgr. Luigi Giussani, "is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ". Every day a thousand things allow us to rationalize not making time for prayer. Let us make no mistake, prayer is a discipline. To be a disciple is to practice the disciplines laid down by the Master. Prayer certainly tops the list of the disciplines of the Christian life. My dear sisters and brothers, even a simple act of prayer, faithfully performed each day, is an acknowledgement of our dependence on God. All of this leads us to the inevitable conclusion that daily prayer is just as essential to acquiring the humility necessary to be justified as it is to our flourishing.

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