30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C – October 23, 2016 – The Times They Are A-Changin’
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If they were living at the same time and in the same place Jesus just might have used lyrics from Bob Dylan’s song The Times They Are A-Changin to make his point about righteousness — Dylan wrote, “The order is rapidly fadin’ and the first one now will later be last.”
We have to be careful about the way we interpret this gospel. Just as soon as we might be quick to say “thank God I am not a hypocritical, self-righteousness braggart who denounces anyone who is not on my side; that I am instead a regular church goer who acts humbly, walks justly and lives simply,” … we get caught in the same trap as the Pharisee in the parable who congratulated himself.
Well, you might ask, what is wrong with getting credit or points for being a good disciple of Christ? Can’t I be saved for attending to the cries of poor people, welcoming outsiders, cooking for hungry children, building shelter for the homeless, making prisoners feel better? I care for the environment and our senior citizens, our homebound and sick. And, I am active in political affairs. Why can’t I boast a bit?
There is really nothing wrong with taking some credit for doing good work. After all it can compel us to study, to make progress, to contribute to the common good, to improve ourselves along the way. But does this interpretation offer the only lesson for today? Perhaps the story is not about the Pharisee or the tax collector. Let’s take a closer look.
We often think of the Pharisees as bad people. They were one of many factions at the time not unlike the people who followed Jesus. John Pilch described the Pharisees as people who practiced strict observances — prayer, fasting, almsgiving and tithing. But the text suggests that some of them were greedy, elitist and dictatorial, thinking of themselves as superior to others.
It’s easy to critique this kind of behavior in other people. What else can we do? The icons, right here in our church, offer an answer. These women and men don’t claim anything great for themselves. The icon of St. Louise de Marillac, for example, is not about Louise but about how she responded to the needs of others. Inspired by Louise our own pastoral care ministers provide services for our parishioners who are homebound, in a nursing home, rehabilitation center or hospital. They give them spiritual support reminding them that this faith community will not forget them.
Today, Mission Sunday, offers every one of us an opportunity to focus on how God, according to the wisdom of Sirach, hears the cries of the oppressed, is not deaf to the screams of the orphan, nor to the widow when she complains. Often we think of missions as far away places served by clergy and lay persons including college students. In fact, many regions in our own nation are so-called mission territories.
I learned this past week that there are approximately 3 million people in New York State living below the federal poverty threshold ($24,250 for a family of 4). Right here in this the 20th District of our State the percentage of children under the age of 18 living in those impoverished households is 14%. These statistics remind us there is plenty of missionary work to do in our own backyards.
In the end this gospel parable says something about who God is and how God works in us and through us to advance the kin-dom here on earth. The Pharisee went off never thinking he was arrogant or in need of any divine assistance. The tax collector, however, did nothing to claim such self-righteousness. Instead, he asked for mercy. God’s mercy embraces us when we acknowledge that the gifts we receive, the accomplishments we achieve, reflect the goodness of God. We are ambassadors of God.
Let’s be alert.Things can get worse. As promoters of another way, we will not promote divisiveness, nor abide by arrogance. It’s not easy but we can be witnesses of mercy and goodness. We do not draw attention to ourselves or take credit for the overwhelming mercy of God. We can, however, continue to spread that mercy and goodness wherever we go. Why is this message so urgent? Perhaps Bob Dylan’s 1963 prophetic voice still has some merit, The Times They Are A-changin’.