Humanity’s desperate condition

Gospel for October 23, 2016

The parable in Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 18.9-14) is straightforward. Yet, it is noteworthy that the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple is only told in Luke’s Gospel. So too with the parable told last Sunday, that of the widow and the unjust judge.

The two parables come after Luke’s relating of Jesus’ prophecy of the end times where he states, “Two women will be grinding together. One woman will be taken and the other left” (17.35). So, we ask, what is the criterion for deciding? Will I be one who enters the kingdom?

The first parable is directed to the disciples who are urged to pray constantly. The parable of the tax collector and the pharisee is also about prayer, but its audience is the pharisees. The focus is, of course, on humility in prayer.

The sum total of the two parables is that one ought to pray constantly with an awareness of one’s sinfulness, one’s unworthiness. If you think yourself righteous, you definitely are not.

Such a paradox leaves us hanging. You cannot know whether you will enter God’s kingdom. You especially cannot know whether any other person will be allowed entry.

We are unworthy, every last one of us. God is infinite truth, beauty and goodness. If we should happen to share even a little in his goodness, we should give abundant praise for that blessing because the gap between my goodness and God’s is infinite. I, a sinner, deserve no share in eternal life. I am not worthy.

The tax collector has got that part right. By realizing his puny goodness, his awful sinfulness, he paradoxically makes himself fit for the kingdom. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

However, also take note of the pharisee’s exclusion from any share in divine life. He has done everything right. He is pious, fasts twice a week and generously gives of his money. How many of us live up to that standard?

So is Jesus telling us to ignore moral and religious laws, sin grievously and then wash it all way with humble confession? Well, no, because our sins typically stem from the same attitude as that of the pharisee. Sin comes because we take God for granted and turn our backs on the grace he gives to enable us to live according to what is good. The sinner too is proud.

If our condition now seems desperate, that is the point. The human situation is desperate, and all we can do is throw ourselves at God’s feet and beg for his mercy.

[Other readings: Sirach 35.15-17, 20-22; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4.6-8]

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