Commentary to the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
The Newborn – A Christian Model
One day, some mothers present their kids to Jesus so that he may take them in his arms and caress them (Mk 10:13). The disciples, who judge this excessive familiarity an inconvenience, drive them away with rebukes. Jesus reacts: “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The episode is narrated with varying shades of meaning by the three synoptic gospels. While Mark and Matthew speak of children, Luke says that newborns are presented to Jesus (Lk 18:15).
If children do something lovely, they merit the love of the parents. But the newborns have not begun to do anything at all. They are the image of one who is able to receive freely. Jesus singles out newborns as models of the attitude we should have in front of God. They are directly opposite to the Pharisee who prides himself in all the good he has done.
Jesus says that one cannot enter the kingdom of God unless he becomes like a newborn baby; which is not aware of owing always and all to the one who gave and continues to give it life.
When one thinks of attributing to oneself the good work, he could no longer be a newborn and auto-excludes himself from God’s kingdom. Paul says: “What have you that you have not received? And if you received it, why are you proud, as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor 4:7).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“O Lord, you reserved to the small ones the gift of the Kingdom of God.”
First Reading: Sirach 35:12-14,16-18
The law is equal to all. However, not all can pay for good lawyers, nor can we expect all the judges to be always impartial. Does God, as he pronounces his definitive and irrevocable judgment, behave like the judges of this world?
In the Old Testament, the order to those who administer justice in Israel is: “Do not accept gifts because gifts blind the eyes of the wise and subvert the cause of the righteous” (Dt 16:19). A wise disposition! One cannot certainly expect impartiality from a judge who receives gifts.
In a society in which it is easy to domesticate the processes of judgment with a bit of money, it is possible for someone to mistake God to be corrupted, like the human judges, who with a gift, can become a business partner.
Let us take the case of a landowner who does not pay his laborers. He knows he does something wrong and that one day he has to give an account to God. What does he do? He goes to the temple, gives a handsome tip to the priests-in-charge and offers to God a fattened lamb or a young bull. He is convinced that, after having received such a generous gift, the Lord will be his friend, will close an eye on the injustices he commits, will not hit him with punishments, will not send him diseases nor drought, nor hailstones to destroy his harvest.
Sirach strongly attacks this false religion: “If you attempt to bribe him with gifts he will not accept them; do not rely on offering from dishonest gain” (Sir 35:11). Then, the passage in our reading explains the reason of his condemnation: “The Lord is judge and shows no partiality” (v. 12).
If he does not commit partiality—we think—he rewards the good and punishes the wicked ones, without discrimination between poor and rich. Instead—here is the surprise!—for him not showing partiality means to side with the poor. This is his justice!
Friendships, relationships, gifts, threats, high social positions…. do not count before him. The conditions that move him are poverty, the needs of the people; “he hears the prayer of the oppressed. He does not disdain the plea of the orphan, nor the complaint of the widow” (vv. 13-14). Their prayers pierce the clouds unceasingly until it reaches the throne of God (vv. 15-18).
When one, who has no merit to show and counts only on his miseries, presents himself before him, God is moved and pronounces always a sentence of salvation.
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
In the Bible, there are many farewell discourses put in the mouth of great personages: Jacob, Moses, Joshua. Jesus gave them before dying (Jn 14–17). So did Peter (2 P 1:12-14) and Paul (Acts 20:17-35). The passage from the letter to Timothy read today belongs to this literary genre.
The apostle is now old and tired, locked in a prison in Rome. He foresees the day on which he will leave this world. He takes stock of his life and turns his gaze towards the future.
The tone is moving and the imagery very emotional.
“I have fought a good fight.” He deliberately dramatizes the conflicts he endured, wherein light and darkness, truth and lie, justice and forces of sin and death face each other. Writing to the Corinthians, he made a persuasive list of what he suffered in this battle for the just cause. “Five times the Jews sentenced me to thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with a rod, once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked, and once I spent a night and day adrift on the high seas. I have encountered continual hazards on travel because of rivers, because of bandits, because of my fellow Jews, or because of the pagans; danger in the city, in the open country, at sea, danger from false brothers. I have worked and often labored without sleep, I have been hungry and thirsty and starving, cold and without shelter” (2 Cor 11:24-27).
He is in prison and seems defeated. However, it does not matter to him as long as he is on Christ’s side and knows he has made a better choice.
He finished the race. He has won the race and is confident that the Lord will give him the laurel crown. He does not speak of merits, accumulated with efforts and fatigue (it would be an incompatible concept with his theology), but the certainty of entrusting himself to the right person, to Christ Jesus who will not delude him nor those who “await his coming with love” (v. 8).
He is confident that he has kept the faith to his commitments. For Paul, faith has been a long labor, a new birth but, once conquered, was always maintained. He has led a life of integrity and brought to completion his apostolic mission to which Jesus called him.
His gaze is turned also to the future: “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time for my departure is at hand” (v. 6). His fidelity to Christ will be validated by the greatest gesture of love: the gift of life. His death will be, like that of the Master, an expiatory sacrifice, and his blood “a libation: on the altar of faith.”
The image of the ship that loosens the sails shows the stable conviction that death is not a sinking, but a heading towards new and splendid shores.
Some thirty years later, Clement, an eminent Christian of Rome, would speak of him: “After having taught justice to all the world and having reached the extreme occidental borders, he witnessed to Christ before the authorities, so he was removed from the world and assumed a holy place, becoming the greatest example of perseverance” (1 Cor v. 7).
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
Whoever narrates a parable always sets a kind of trap to his listeners: he pushes them, without their being aware of it, to be in favor of one or the other personages of the story. Then, when they are fully involved, he draws the moral conclusion.
In reading today’s parable, one could lose the message because one risks to identify oneself with the wrong personage.
We are convinced of not having anything in common with the hypocrite, disagreeable, proud and presumptuous Pharisee. He despises others with arrogance and thinks of himself just, without being so in reality. Our sympathies are all for the publican who, poor guy, did something wrong but has a golden heart. He repented and therefore merits love and understanding. We convince ourselves that this parable is addressed to those who feel aversion towards the Pharisee.
The parable is not that simple as it appears at first sight.
First, let us pay attention to the Pharisee who, assuming the normal attitude (not proud) of a pious Jew, prays standing (which incidentally the Publican also does). No pretensions, no hypocrisy.
His monolog is a prayer. When he dialogues with God, opens his heart to him, he surely cannot lie. He says only what he feels. It’s enough to re-read attentively and without prejudices (vv. 11-12). Immediately we realize that we are faced with an upright, honest person of integrity. He observes faithfully the precepts of the law and avoids scrupulously all sins (thefts, injustices, adulteries).
He does even more than what is prescribed. The law orders to fast a day each year (Lev 16:29) and the Pharisee fasts twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday) for the reparation of others’ sins and to draw God’s blessings on the people. The law establishes that, during harvest time, the farmer gives immediately to the priests a tenth of the principal products: grain, wine, oil, firstborns of the flock (Dt 14:22-27). It deals with offerings destined to benefit the poor, to support the expenses of the temple and to form young rabbis. Unfortunately, the farmers—the Pharisee knows it well—are crafty and whenever they can, they do not fulfill this duty. To compensate for their possible (nay probable) theft, he tithes, from his own pocket every time he buys their products. In short, he can serenely tell God: My Lord, there are so many wicked people in the world, but don’t take it to heart, there are people like me who balance their misdeeds.
If one tries to look for something lacking in this man, one can hardly discover something reprehensible. He is proud of his righteousness, contrasts himself with other persons and distances himself from sinners. It is true that this creates a certain nuisance but no serious faults and then he has several reasons to feel better than others. There were people like that, honest, just, blameless. Let us willingly forgive a little bit of pride.
Also Paul, who forcefully attacks the Pharisees’ theology—accepts them of being zealous persons (Rom 10:2). In a strident contrast with the first personage, the second, a publican, appears on the scene. He has immediately attracted our sympathies for his humility.
It is he who cheats us. It’s for something that he appears gentle and good-natured at first sight. He is a certified thief, a hated exploiter, a jackal. He does not extort money from the rich, bleeds the poor, and imposes exorbitant taxes on the most miserable among the farmers, those who have not even bread to give to their small children. He has nothing good to offer to God. He is loaded with sins.
The law says that to save oneself, he must give back all that he has stolen plus 20% interest and to immediately abandon his infamous profession. The conditions are so difficult to implement that the rabbis concluded that salvation is something impossible for the publicans.
Now that we have clarified who the two personages are, on whose side are we? I hope that the sympathy for the publican fades a bit and the aversion towards the Pharisee is being reappraised.
If this is the new disposition of our spirit, let us conclude the parable in a meaningful and logical way. Jesus would have expressed himself more or less like this: the Pharisee should be a bit more humble. His contempt for others ails a bit. As for the rest, he is a model to imitate. With his works and righteousness, he merits justification. He rightfully deserves paradise.
As for the publican: his repentance—certainly—places him along a good road. However lowered eyes and a generic sorrow are not sufficient to reconcile with God and people. Something more is needed: that he returns to the poor the stolen money and fulfills the prescriptions of the law because God’s terrible and sudden punishments imposed on him will surely fall.
If we agree with this conclusion of the parable, then we have the right disposition to receive the lesson of Jesus: “I tell you, the publican returned home justified unlike the other.” We cannot agree with this sentence. How can one condemn a person who has behaved well and declare just the sinner? Our criteria of justice are distorted.
The reversal of the judgment is not about the moral behavior of the two. Jesus does not say that the publican is good and the Pharisee bad and a liar. He does not say that one is fundamentally virtuous while the other is a sinner who managed to hide his sins. He only says that the first “was justified,” that is, was made just by God. The second returned home as before, with all his undeniable good works but without saying that God was able to make him just. This is the point.
What is the Pharisee’s error? He makes an error because he puts himself before God in a wrong way. He goes to the temple carrying with him a load of good works accumulated with rigorous penance and through the scrupulous observance of all the commandments. He is convinced that this is sufficient to merit him righteous. As if he would say to the Lord: look what a marvelous life I’m presenting! To tell you the truth: I astonished you! You did not expect to have such a faithful worshiper, who declares that I am “just”!
Note: the Pharisee does not ask God to be made righteous. From God, he only claims that he declares, acknowledges—as does an exemplary notary—the righteousness that he has built with his own hands. He does not understand that all his good works put together do not confer on him the right to salvation. There is no guarantee that whoever does good merits anything; one has only to thank the Lord who guided him on the road to happiness. Good works do not make people righteous. They are the sign that the Lord has made us righteous. Good works are like fruits revealing that the tree is full of life. But the fruits do not make the tree alive. Before God, a person finds himself empty-handed. He has nothing of himself to show. He has nothing that makes him worthy of divine complacency.
Whoever reasons like the Pharisee is not bad. He is only naïve. He behaves like the person who thinks of meriting the inheritance of the father because he is a model student, not a drug-addict and a no nonsense person. He acts in a correct way by doing his own good and must thank the father who educated him. The inheritance belongs to the father and could be received as a gift, not earned.
The publican is not a model of a virtuous life. He is a poor man who knows he can offer to God only his “broken and torn down heart” as the Psalm says: the Lord does not despise it (Ps 51:19). It is the hungry who is filled with good things while the rich is sent back empty-handed (Lk 1:53). He does not even run the risk of an illusion that good acts give him the right to lay claim because he has none.
The Pharisee must not renounce his blameless life but the false image of God in his mind: as an accountant who takes note of good and bad works of people, a distributor of prizes and punishments. From this deformed image of God other troubles come, foremost is the need to create a dividing barrier between righteous and sinners. His very name means separated.
Whoever thinks of accumulating merits before God ends inevitably despising others. He does not want to have anything to do with the wicked. Whoever feels righteous is convinced of being able to involve God in this separation. He would like to enlist God in his group, in the righteous’ club. He would like to make of God a Pharisee. God does not fit here. If God has to choose, God would side with the sinners.
The last sentence: “for whoever exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14) seems an invitation to consider the triumphs in this world ephemeral and to cultivate hope that in the future life the positions will be reversed. It is in this context we should read Jesus’ disclaimer directed to one who confides in his own merits. It refers to the Pharisee who exalts his own good works and considers them an advantage before God. He, if he does not want to find himself empty-handed (humbled), must accept to make himself small, poor among the poor, debtor among debtors. When he will have taken this attitude he will be in the condition to be filled with gifts by the Lord, as it happened to Mary, the poor, humble servant in whom the Omnipotent worked marvels (Lk 1:48-49).
At this point, the introductory verse becomes important (v. 9). It clarifies to whom the parable is directed to.
The listeners are “some who presumed of being righteous and despised the others.” They are not the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, but the Christians of Luke’s communities. It is in them that the dangerous Pharisaical mentality is insinuated. The parable is directed to the Christians of all times because the idea of “meriting” before God is profoundly rooted in the person. No one is completely immune to this “leaven” which pollutes and corrupts the life of the community (Mk 8:16).