Father Donald Senior, CP

Oct. 27: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Down but not out

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

No other evangelist captures the tang of Jesus’ parables better than Luke. This Sunday we have one of his best — the story of the pharisee and the tax collector — addressed, as the Gospel notes, “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”

Who could forget the scene? The pharisee standing in the temple and, as Jesus wryly notes, “praying to himself.” He thanks God that he is “not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.”

Meanwhile the tax collector — not one popular with anyone in first-century Israel — stood at a distance “and would not even raise his eyes to heaven,” but prays earnestly, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Whenever I hear this parable I think of one of our former employees at Catholic Theological Union. One of the best experiences I had as an administrator was to get to know the men and women who kept the place running: maintenance folks, food service employees, the people who cleaned the offices and public spaces after hours.

One person I got to know well was “Jim,” a skilled carpenter, electrician and all-around craftsman. Despite his many skills and winsome personality, Jim’s life was very difficult. He had a broken marriage, repeated bouts with alcoholism, was often out of work and was desperate to connect with his only son but was having little luck doing so. Jim and I had a lot of long talks over the years and I grew to appreciate him very much.

He told me he always gave something to anyone begging on the street. “It would only take a nudge and I would be there myself,” he told me.

There came a time when a retired member of our staff passed away and I was invited to say his funeral Mass. The man had no family and few friends, so most of the congregation were members of CTU. When I entered the large and mostly empty church for the funeral, I spotted Jim sitting in the back pew. Jim was not an ardent churchgoer, but he knew this older colleague and had come to pay his respects.

“Come on up to the front,” I said to Jim, “there is plenty of room.” “Oh no,” he said. “Remember Jesus’ story about the guy who was up front and very proud of himself, while the other guy was hiding in the back, asking God for forgiveness? That’s me,” Jim said, “I’m the guy in the back.”

The readings today affirm one of the basic perspectives of our Scriptures. “The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint,” as the beautiful first reading from Sirach proclaims. The response from Psalm 34 picks up the same refrain: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor”; “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.”

Jesus’ parable of the pharisee and the tax collector stands in this beautiful tradition that portrays God as especially compassionate and forgiving for those in desperate need. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal.”

Jesus, who was steeped in the Scriptures, not only knew this text of Sirach but embodied it. Time and again, the Gospels portray Jesus reaching out with compassion and understanding to the very people that others despised. In the arrogant words of the character in Jesus’ parable, these are the “rest of humanity.” Today’s Scriptures tell us the follower of Jesus is not to despise anyone, even abject failures, but should reach out in compassion, respect and tender care.

By the way, there is a finale to Jim’s story. The week after the funeral, a friend of his gave him a ticket to a Bears and Packers game. Jim told me it was “the happiest day of my life.” Only a week after that, Jim himself passed away in his sleep from a massive heart attack. I suspect now he is sitting up front in God’s house.


  • scripture