The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 23rd October 2022
Lectionary 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
Theme: Both Pharisee and Tax Collector?
The gospel for this Sunday usually evokes sympathy towards the tax collector. Because of his stance, the character of the tax collector often invites hearers of this story to imitate him, in humility, in admission of one’s unworthiness before G-d. Unfortunately, in many Christian circles, both lay people and clergy alike, this also breeds aversion towards the person of the Pharisee. It may also be argued that this text has fueled anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic sentiments among well-meaning Christians.
It is crucial that in reading the text, before any supposition or imitation happens, one must take care of two details. Firstly, that characters in the Scripture, unlike in other texts, but very much similar to our real and concrete experience, are round characters. They are characters whose actions, words, and even traits are complicated, characters with depth, and yet they are painfully and unapologetically human. In the text, we see how Jesus describes the two: the Pharisee, who may have arrogantly compared himself by ‘thanking God that he is not like other people,’ but is ‘fasting, tithing, and praying’; and the tax collector who ‘stands far off, not looking up to heaven, beating his breast, and imploring for G-d’s mercy, acknowledging that he is a sinner.’ Is Jesus, in fact, shunning acts of piety like praying, fasting, and giving tithes just because the Pharisee may have arrogantly spoken by comparing himself to others? Aren’t these the very same acts Christians and Jews hold as noble? Is Jesus also oblivious of the fact that the tax collector’s questionable fiscal practices, and being instrumental in reinforcing the oppression by the Roman occupiers, just because he took on the lowly position? Or are we being made aware of the fact that both characters are morally ambiguous and complex but that they are both in the temple facing G-d in prayer presenting themselves as they are, as human beings flawed yet capable and desirous of becoming righteous? Amy-Jill Levine observes the catch of the parable: “might we see the Pharisee as helping the tax collector. Just as the sin of one person impacts the community, so the merits of the righteous can benefit the community. Perhaps the Jews who first heard this parable understood the Pharisee’s merit positively to have impacted the tax collector. This would be the parable’s shock: not only that the agent of Rome is justified but that the Pharisee’s own good works helped in that justification.”
Secondly, one must take seriously the context within which the story is told. Here, we consider the immediate literary context. At the beginning of the text we read “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” (Lk. 18:9). If this is placed at the beginning of the reading, then it sets the tone in which the parable must be read. It may serve as a word of caution to us readers, as we might have unwittingly placed ourselves above the Pharisee, and consequently, over others whom we consider to be like him. Levine notes, “this reading traps interpreters: to conclude (following 18:11), ‘God I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.’” The possible ‘punch line’ of the parable becomes not so much about who to identify with more, but to identify with both characters within us; and that we can come before G-d as complex and morally ambiguous as we are, knowing full well that G-d listens to those humble enough to desire his righteousness. Reflection and Discussion: 1. In what ways have we identified both the characters of the Pharisee and the tax collector within us? 2. How have we faced G-d with our complexity, ambiguity, humanity? Bibliography: Levine, AJ, “The Gospel according to Luke” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament New Revised Standard Version, Amy-Jill Levine and Mac Zvi Brettler eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)
This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by
John Paul Bolano, Philippines, Bat Kol Alumnus: 2017