Father Donald Senior, CP

In the eyes of God even the ‘least’ are cherished

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Oct. 16: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sir 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk 18:9-14

When I was president of Catholic Theological Union (5416 S. Cornell Ave.) we had an amiable member of our maintenance staff who was a skilled carpenter and jack-of-all-trades but who, as I found out through many conversations, lived a hard life: a broken marriage, a struggle with alcohol, a history of personal setbacks.

One day I had the funeral Mass at a local parish for one of our retired staff. It was a big church and only a few people had gathered. When I came in the church I saw Jim sitting by himself in the very last pew.

“Why don’t you come up front? There’s plenty of room,” I said to him. “Oh no,” he replied, “This is where I belong. Remember that story Jesus told about the guy who prayed up front and the sinner who stayed in the back row? The guy in the back. That’s me,” he said. “That’s me.”

The Gospel selection for this Sunday is the story that Jim remembered and lived. Jesus’ famous parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector is one of the most beloved stories from Luke’s Gospel. Surely Jesus had a twinkle in his eye when he described the arrogant prayer of the Pharisee who thanks God “that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector!” While the Pharisee lists his virtues, the tax collector stands at a distance, and “would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

The narrator of the Gospel notes that Jesus addressed this parable “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” This is not the only time in the Gospels that Jesus warns us not to despise people we consider inferior.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to judge others, and to take the beam out of our own eye before we start looking for a speck in a brother or sister’s eye. He instructs his disciples not to despise the “little ones” who seem always to go astray because in the eyes of God they are precious.

By “little ones” Jesus does not mean children but people we estimate to be inferior and of no standing. The parable of the sheep and the goats promises a heavenly reward for those who care for the “least,” the most vulnerable people who need our care.

Few of us appreciate someone who brags about their own virtue. At the same time, we might find ourselves “despising” others and thereby unconsciously slipping into the role of the Pharisee in this Gospel reading.

There are people who offend us or even threaten us. We might find ourselves avoiding eye contact with the panhandlers on our street or irritated by someone at work whose manner is off-putting. We might feel resentment for immigrants who continue to stream into our country looking for work. These are very human and understandable reactions.

But the Gospel today challenges us to a stronger spiritual discipline. Jesus reminds us that the fundamental reason we are to respect and even come to love others is because in the sight of God even the “least” are beloved and cherished.

Echoes of this are found in the other readings for this Sunday. The author of Sirach reminds us of a fundamental biblical conviction: “God hears the cry of the oppressed” and “the Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.” That refrain is lifted up in the response for today that accompanies Psalm 34: “the Lord hears the cry of the poor.” As the psalmist prays, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.”

Paul in his letter to Timothy seems to be taking stock of his life and what he remembers with gratitude is that “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength … and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.”


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