“How do we look” or “seem” is a natural question we can ask of ourselves. Appearances have some importance. The usual pattern is that we do not appreciate our physical outwardness so much and we dress it up to cover up. Others usually do not notice what we dislike and meet us beyond our shame.
Praying is allowing God to meet us in our simplicity, beyond our coverings. This week as we walk our ways and pray our days, we might hold up to God those shame-places and even pray with the cover-ups with which we think we dazzle others. We are always preparing to be our truest selves as we assist at the Eucharistic liturgy. He comes in Word and Sacrament to where and to whom we are really ourselves.
The books within the Hebrew Scriptures known as “Wisdom Literature” often personify aspects of the mysterious God. In the First Reading from Sirach, God is pictured as having ears and who does not play favorites. God is, however, tends to listen attentively to the poor, the orphan, the widow and all who are lowly and oppressed. These prayers have a quite direct line up to heaven and into God’s ears.
One other group whose petitions are heard are those who willingly serve God. God seems to be quite like us. We are good to those who are good to us, who attend to our needs. As with the readings from last weekend’s liturgy, prayer can seem to be centered around getting what we want while giving the impression that everything God gives us is gift. This reading is poetically simple and charming, but does form God into our image and likeness a bit too much.
The Gospel does help clarify things. Here again, it is important to notice to whom the parable is offered. The Pharisees are the usual suspects and all others who are convinced of their own righteousness and spend much time affirming themselves by judging and reducing others with false, but self-flattering comparisons.
The first person in the parable happens to be a Pharisee and he gets up close and personal with God and prays to himself! He spends quite a bit of time being grateful that he is not like the rest of humanity who are greedy, dishonest and adulterous, and he is thankful that he is not like this tax collector standing in the back of the temple. He then recites and recalls how he does the rituals of fasting and tithing. He has all the tickets in his hands. He is all dressed up in a pretense of piety.
One of Luke’s little literary devices is reversal or contrasting in a surprising way. Things are upside down and the usual becomes unusual. Jesus’ ways are contrary to our human patterns. We have then a tax collector who stands at a safe distance from God and is dressed only in his suit of sinfulness, but he knows it! He prays, not to himself, but to God and with words reflecting his naked truth.
Earlier in Luke’s narrative, Peter, the first to be called, came close to Jesus and asked Jesus to depart, because he, Peter, was a sinful man. Jesus didn’t deny that truth, but didn’t deny either Jesus’ call to follow Him in his sinful suit. Here, in this parable, the theme stays firm. Jesus does send the tax collector out of the temple while the Pharisee seems to stay there preening himself.
Jesus is catching the attention of both the self-righteous and the self-condemning. Jesus is blessing the truth, but obviously not the sin. He is challenging the external formalities and encouraging interior reception of the Christ-centered righteousness. Rituals, religious practices, external actions are blest when they flow from the truthful insides.
This week the Church will celebrate the feast of All Saints. The eve before is known in North American elsewhere, as Halloween. There is a wonderful relationship between these two celebrations. On the day before All Saints, there is much of putting on masks and costumes. There is much of pretending and covering up true identities. The next day we celebrate those women and men who grew out of and past the necessity of masks, costumes and pretenses.
A mid-nineteenth century American writer, Ambrose Bierce once wrote that a saint was a sinner revised and edited. I would agree with a little of that, but rather say that a saint is a sinner re-dressed and edified by the touch of Jesus. She or he has let go of the ornaments, cover-ups, and posturings and are available to their truths and the truths around them.
The Pharisee remained recounting how he has blest himself. He seems to be enthralled with his finery and he thinks God is too. The tax collector has even put aside his uniform or definition and has been exalted by his being humble before his creator and redeemer. It is not easy for us to take off the masks and trappings of pretense. It is easier to sit down and admire ourselves exaltedly. The going forth, back home is even more joyful and easy and than drag around our self-important deeds and thereby never know the freeing touch of Jesus.
“The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” Ps. 34, 2
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