March 18, 2023
by Tom Purcell
Creighton University's Heider College Of Business
click here for photo and information about the writer

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
Lectionary: 242

Hosea 6:1-6
Psalm 51:3-4, 18-19, 20-21ab
Luke 18:9-14

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The Midpoint of Lent

At first, there appear to be two separate threads in today’s readings.  Hosea ends with the God telling us “. . . it is love I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”  And the message from Jesus that Luke conveys is related – the Pharisee believes he is entitled to salvation because he “sacrifices” by tithing and fasting, while the tax collector merely prays for mercy.  Jesus concludes that the tax collector is “justified” – connected to God in the way Hosea described, by love, not merely sacrifices.  After reflection, from my perspective, these two passages can be synthesized as follows.

Jesus came into the world of the Roman Empire, a time in human history where there were significant disparities between the haves and have nots.  Pharisees were religious, but many times were more concerned not with their true spiritual calling, but how they appeared both to their fellow Jews and also to God.  The Pharisees’ approach to religious practices generally centered around doing the right thing, but not always for the right reason.  Many of them were prideful, entitled, and self-centered.  I read one commentator on this passage who noted that this Pharisee really didn’t pray FOR something when he was in the temple, but merely recited all the good things he was doing to display his piety.  His conversation with God was a series of “I” statements about his actions, but his actions seem to be disconnected from what God wants.  The tax collector, a reviled person in Israel at this time (unlike the IRS today, he was a sanctioned extortionist by the Roman occupiers), recognized his personal sinfulness without feeling the need to compare himself to others, and prayed for mercy.  He did not feel the need (the right?) to catalog his goodness but merely to ask for forgiveness for his sins.

I tried to give the Pharisee the benefit of the doubt by putting his prayer into a more positive light.  After all, as many of us have done, he was following the dictates of his religion very faithfully and strictly.  In fact, he exceeded the expectations – fasted more frequently, fully tithed (10%) his income for use by the temple, was not greedy or adulterous.  He certainly felt that he was doing the right things.  But it is hard to get past his insistence of bragging about his actions.  He might have acted in admirable ways, but for what motive – i.e., where was his heart when he was doing all the doing?   Wouldn’t his prayer have been more pleasing to God if he had not compared himself to the tax collector?  Would his actions have been more powerful if they had been motivated by gratitude to his Creator, rather than how he looked to his contemporaries?

I also reflect on how easy it is to feel the smug sense of entitlement and rationalization that the Pharisee exhibits.  I know I have in the past unfairly compared myself to my sisters and brothers who are in different economic circumstances.  Haven’t I sinned as the Pharisee did?  I know that I have gone through a checklist and felt good (smug?) about merely following the rules.  Is that what God wants?  I have worked hard for 50+ years to be in the financial position that I enjoy – I feel grateful to be blessed in this way, but I acknowledge it is tempting to look with insensitivity on those who have not been as successful.

Ultimately, sacrifices and self-denial are good, not in themselves, but as a vehicle for fully appreciating the incredible gift we have received from our Creator to enjoy this physical life.  Our spiritual nature is the immortal in each of us, and when our physical life in this world ends, that spirit passes on to the next phase of our existence.  Thoughtful self-denial reminds us that we shouldn’t be attached to the good things in our current physical existence because that attachment can distract us from why God gave us this opportunity.  God reminds us in Hosea, it seems to me, that love, and knowledge of God, come not from the sacrifices where we have the Pharisee’s motives, but from the conscious awareness that we are using the blessings of our physical life as God intended.       

My prayer today is for the grace to repent for the times when I have dis-connected my actions from God’s calling to be authentic to my true self, and to guard against smug rationalizations and feelings of entitlement.

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