30th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2019

My Dear People,

Another parable about prayer immediately follows, directed at some who are confident in their own righteousness. Fittingly, a Pharisee represents such self-righteous people who despise everyone else. Appropriately, the other character is a tax collector. The parable compares these two people, as earlier parables compared “two people” who “were in debt” (7:41) and “two sons” (15:11). Both have gone up to the temple mount to pray. Thus, it is likely a time of public prayer associated with the morning or evening sacrifices, where people gathered to pray (1:10; Acts 3:1).

The Pharisee took up the posture of standing to pray. His prayer, however, is less toward God and more to himself. His self-righteousness, he considered the rest of humanity— “everyone else”! (Luke 18:9)—including this tax collector, to be dishonest or unrighteous. The Pharisee’s religious practices are exemplary—to fast twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays) and pay tithes on all he gets. However, these practices have become his badge of pride. Moreover, in his contempt for others, he neglects weightier matters such of love of neighbor (see Matt 23:23).

The tax collector likewise stood to pray, but in a humble manner. He remained at a distance, further back in the temple courts. Out of shame, he did not even raise his eyes to heaven (see Ezra 9:6). As an expression of his deep sorrow, he beat his breast (Luke 13:48). With these gestures, he gave evidence that he was a sinner and thus asked God to be merciful to him. This verb differs from the vocabulary used in Jesus’ earlier command to “be merciful” (9:36) or have mercy or pity.  It occurs only once elsewhere in the New Testament, where it means to “expiate” or make atonement for sin (Heb 2:17). Such “sacrificial overtones” fit the parable’s temple setting, more so since the prayer occurs at the time of the daily sacrifice. For Luke’s readers, the expression may also call to mind the sacrifice of Jesus, “whom God set forth as an expiation” (Rom 3:25).

Jesus explains—I tell you—the shocking reversal: this tax collector whom the Pharisee held in contempt (Luke 18:11) is the one who went down to his house justifiedconsidered righteous by God—not the Pharisee who considered himself righteous (v.9). Luke will soon recount the story of a real tax collector, Zacchaeus, who similarly goes down to his house justified, having found salvation (19:5-6,9).

Jesus concludes with a principle which repeats verbatim his earlier teaching (14:11). He thus applies the parable to everyone and highlights the reversal involving those who are humble and those who are exalted (1:52)—by God!

Jesus’ words can serve as an examination of conscience to guard against a self-righteous attitude: “Christians should keep in mind that the value of their good works, fast, alms, penances, and so on, is not based on quantity and quality so much as on the love of God practiced in them. True love of God will also find expression in love—not contempt—of neighbor (Luke 10:27-28). Thus, Christians will also be careful to avoid falling into the same trap another way—that is, by thanking God that they are not like those self-righteous people!

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Vincent Clemente


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