Ordinary Time 30, Year C-2010

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He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34—NIV)

The parable in today’s gospel reading was explicitly intended for those “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” It was a way, one might say, of responding to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who complained that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 5:30).

The Pharisees, no doubt were the embodiment of honor and respectability on account of their strict religious observance [1]. The bar of their religious observance was so high that they formed a class by themselves; they were set apart or separated.

Tax collectors, in contrast, represented what observant Jews found very hateful—dishonesty, greed, opportunism, usury, disloyalty to one’s own country. Tax collectors were in the same class as the robbers and the murderers [2]. If Mt. 5:46 and Lk. 6:32 are any indication, ‘tax collectors’ and ‘sinners’ were interchangeable terms.

Given the sharp contrast between the honorable and respectable, on the one hand, and the hateful and despicable, on the other, those who heard the parable must have found very disconcerting the teaching that it was the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, who went home justified before God. “For,” as Jesus concluded, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

That the villain is the hero and the hero is the villain, this is consistent, of course, with such other puzzling reversals as those consisting of: the proud being scattered, rulers being brought down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty, while the humble is lifted up and the hungry filled with good things; blessings being pronounced over the poor, the hungry, the mourning, the hated, the excluded, the insulted and the rejected, while woes are addressed to the rich, the well fed and those who are laughing and are well spoken of; the last being first and the first being last; the outsider being in and the insider being out; the greatest being the least and the master being the servant (1:51-53; 6:20-26; 13:30; 14:11; 15:11-32; 16:19-31; 22:25-27) [3]. In the last analysis, commendation is given to those who humbly acknowledge their poverty before God and look solely to his grace and mercy for justification and the crown of righteousness that he alone awards, certain that they are that the prayer of the lowly pierces the sky and that the Lord hears the cry of the poor. Condemnation, on the other hand, awaits those who, rather than make their boast in God all day long and praise his name always (Ps. 44:8), glory and trust in their own abilities and works, congratulate themselves for them, and settle for the illusion of justification and grandeur resulting from their recitations both of their good deeds and of others’ misdeeds.

And the question now for us is whether we are at the commendable or condemnable side of the reversal. Christians, clergy and lay alike, know they are called to be like the tax collector in humility and poverty before God; but the persecuted lowly folks could easily turn persecuting in a similar way, perhaps, that “the Puritans, who sought religious freedoms for themselves, refused them to others” [4]. It also happens that those vested with Jesus’ authority of service sometimes end up, as exemplified in lives of St. Mary MacKillop, St. Theodore Guérin, and others [5], going against the prohibition to lord it over their brothers and sisters (Lk. 22:24-26; 2 Cor. 1:24; Titus 1:7).

But even when we are guilty of such regressions, there is offer of hope for us in the figure of the tax collector, standing at a distance, not even daring to look up to heaven, beating his breast and saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us, for at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:4-6). Made to be sin for us though he had no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21), Jesus gave his body up and shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins.


[1] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990) 51:15; 75:146.
[2] William Barclay, And Jesus Said (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1970) 101.
[3] Cf. http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Luke/Humility-Trusting-All-Father (accessed October 23, 2010).
[4] John A. Coleman, S.J., “Faith of a Nation,” America (October 11, 2010) 22.
[5] Cf. the editorial, “A Saint for Our Time,” America (October 18, 2010) 5.