Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10-10-24: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12-14,16-18 / Psalm 34 / 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 / Luke 18:9-14
God knows no favorites. So says Jesus. That’s Jesus - the son of Eleazar and grandson of Sirach - the author of our first reading today. That seems to be the point of today’s gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple as well – told, this time, by the more familiar Jesus. The tax collector or publican, as he’s sometimes called, goes home justified while the Pharisee does not. Doesn’t that show a little favoritism? Of course the parable is meant to grab our attention, jolt us out of our smug complacency regarding religion and its expectations. And, perhaps most significantly, to invite us to entertain the unpleasant truth that deep down all of us are essentially the same when it comes to temptation and sin: we might succumb to different vices - some vices being more acceptable than others - but, make no mistake, we all succumb.

If you wanted a more modern version of the parable, at least for its shock value, you just had to tune into the recent gubernatorial debate at Hofstra University last week. The most comic line - and remember that comedy is funny precisely because it exposes the truth in an ironic way - came from the Freedom Party candidate, a convicted madam who ran the high-end brothel which provided prostitutes for the former governor. She claimed that she would be the best choice for governor precisely because of her past experience. It was all very logical: having run an efficient and successful brothel she would know exactly how to get the state legislature to work efficiently and successfully, since both the legislature and the brothel were composed of the same kind of employee. Who could possibly disagree? Pharisee and publican, politician and prostitute – have more in common than merely their initial consonants.

God knows no favorites could have been the subtitle of last week’s PBS documentary, God in America, attempting to explore the role of religion in American history – a herculean task that barely skimmed the surface. The piece on Abraham Lincoln, though, was extraordinary. Lincoln’s inner motivations concerning the Civil War have been the subject of more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime, and as many theories. The documentary suggested Lincoln underwent a conversion of sorts midway in the war, sparked perhaps by the unexpected death of his young son to typhoid. What began for him as a desire to preserve the Union turned into a struggle to make the dream of the founders - that all men are created equal - into a lived reality: the abolition of the practice of slavery and emancipation for all slaves held by Americans. The Civil War would be the most devastating war America ever engaged in, eventually claiming an astounding 625,000 lives. The program quoted a line from Lincoln’s second inaugural: “Both (sides) read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other,” Lincoln said. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”

Prayer, then, is not intended to show God who is better than whom, which side is right and which is wrong. Prayer is not meant to change God but to change the pray-er, helping him realize in humility that he’s just as weak as the next, yet possessing the same dignity as his neighbor - and his enemy - in the eyes of God.

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