Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Brilliant Autumn and the Approach of EST

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sir 35:12-14; 16-18
Ps 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Lk 18:9-14

The New American Bible and the Revised Standard Version translate the lines from Sirach a bit differently.  As we just heard from the NAB, “though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed” while the RSV translates the same line “He will not show partiality in the case of the poor, and he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.”   While the tax collector was not exactly poor or powerless he was certainly marginalized because of his perceived cooperation with the Romans and his ability to take a cut of the taxes for himself.  The Pharisee earned his money in more acceptable ways, at least in the eyes of some.

Both Sirach and the Gospel deal in stereotypes.  Stereotypes are statistics in narrative form.  When applied to large groups they have a kernel of truth, which, like the mathematical statistics that are taking over even the simplest decisions in the practice of medicine, may be invalid in any particular case.  For example, Asian men have black hair and are shorter than American men.  However, one need only look at the photo from my ordination, in which Ignatius, a 6'3" black-haired Taiwanese Jesuit towers over this 5'11" American, to see that only part of the stereotype applies. 

Being poor, being marginalized, or being oppressed do not automatically make one just, noble or good.  They do not automatically make one humble nor do they confer particular graces exclusive to those states.  None of them are adequate rationalizations or excuses for sinful behavior.  Think back to the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” in West Side Story which includes the line “We’re depraved on accounta we’re deprived.”  Perhaps the Jets were depraved on accounta' they were depraved. Justice.  Humility.  Grace.  All require cooperation of the individual  regardless of bank account or social standing. 

What would our understanding of the Pharisee and the tax-collector be if the roles were reversed?  Suppose the Pharisee acknowledged his sinfulness and the tax-collector boasted of his fundamental righteousness, or, to put it into more contemporary terms, suppose it was the tax-collector who was afflicted with high self-esteem instead of the Pharisee.  Who would be the good guy then?

In his commentary on this Gospel Luke Timothy Johnson includes an important caveat.  “The parable itself is one that invites internalization by every reader because it speaks to something deep within the heart of every human.  The love of God can easily turn into an idolatrous self-love; the gift can quickly be seized as a possession; what comes from another can be turned into self-accomplishment.  Prayer can be transformed into boasting.  Piety is not an unambiguous posture.”   The contemplative literature contains many references to the sin of taking pride in one’s humility.  It is a strong temptation. Only a very fine line separates humility and exaggerated self-esteem.

In reality we all pray in the manner of the Pharisee at times.  Even the humble tax-collector probably lapsed into the same kind of critical “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” prayer as the Pharisee.   If nothing else the daily examen should keep us realistically humble. 

Paul’s words in the letter to Timothy are significant in that they illustrate that we are all, rich and poor, oppressed and powerful, and in any social stratum, capable of dishonorable behavior.  “At my first defense, no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.”   Everyone.  Not those with the most to lose but everyone.  And then he goes on.

“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”

Our only hope is in the Lord.  Our only life raft is prayer. 
Last Sunday we heard Ps 121:

"I lift up my eyes toward the mountains;
whence shall help come to me?
My help is from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

My help is from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth."

Today, in Ps 34, we hear:

"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The Lord redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him."

St. Ignatius understood human nature well.  Had he lived a few centuries later he would have been a tremendous psychiatrist.  He was aware that all of us are capable of opting for the good and the holy.  Poverty and disadvantage are no more get out of jail free cards than riches and comfort are go directly to jail do not pass go orders.  All of us are sinners.  All of us are called to prayer.  All of us are called to holiness.  Rich or poor.  Pharisee or tax-collector.  Democrat or Republican.   No one is saved or damned because of his financial status, political affiliation or any other characteristic save that of being human.

"The Lord redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.

Stay with that thought for the rest of the day."
This autumn has been a tremendous one.  Most of the guys in the house agree that the leaves have been more vibrant than they've been in the past several years.  ONe of the great gifts of being back in the North where I belong as opposed to the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line, is the aromas of autumn here in New England.  There was some rain overnight.  The outdoor temp was around forty (it was twenty-eight yesterday morning).  The indescribable aroma of autumn made me want to stay outdoors all day.  But, because I have to finish a lecture I am giving in Florida in a week, that is not possible.  

Al, one of my roommates at Penn State, and his wife Karen, came to visit.  We've known each other for 45 years.  They wanted to visit nearby Walden Pond.  Great place to visit on a Wednesday afternoon.  I wouldn't even think about taking someone there on a lovely Saturday afternoon in the fall.  The leaves were about two days from absolute peak.  

Campion looks pretty good too.  The first photo has greeted me every morning for the past weeks.  The second was down by the pond when I was showing Al and Karen around.  

Had to make an unanticipated trip to the retreat house in Gloucester, MA two days ago.  Of course I took the camera.  This is the delivery road.  Niles Pond is just to the right of the brush with the Atlantic just behind where I was standing to take the photo.

A week later Jerry who I've known for 63 years and his wife Ruth came up.  Only because they were here did I go on the Boston Harbor Cruise to the Charlestown Navy Yard, a delightful 45 minute trip around the harbor.  The other cruise options were already closed for the season.  Plans for next spring will include one or two of the tours.  The first is the American Flag taken through the T sign.  The other is a portion of the Boston skyline. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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