Deacon Cornell's Homily


Sirach 35:12-14,16-18
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14


October 27-28, 2007, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I sometimes found it hard at first to identify with any of the main characters in a parable. This is another one of those parables. Am I the Pharisee or the tax collector? Fr. Jack McCardle tells a similar story in his book of stories:

It was the end of the world, and there was a great crowd outside the gates of heaven waiting for judgment. The crowd was made up of the people you saw around church every week, some Eucharistic ministers from St. Bridget’s, a few of the PPC members from St. Elizabeth’s, the St. Vincent DePaul crowd from St. Isidore's, and so on. They were all greeting one another and smiling in anticipation when all of a sudden a dark murmur started through the crowd, growing at last to a dull roar. The word had come that God was letting all those others in, you know, the people that never came to church, who dropped their kids off at Religious Ed and picked them up and went home, the C & E Catholics, the people who brought their kids for baptism and you never saw them again until it was time for First Eucharist. God had let them in. The roar turned from disbelief to anger, “How can God do that. We worked so hard all those years.” All of a sudden there was a great trumpet blast and the roar died away to silence as they all realized that judgment had come and they were still outside the gates.

How can Jesus say that the tax collector was the one who is "justified" when he has been so sinful, by his own admission? And how can Jesus ignore the obvious fact that the Pharisee is doing everything that we teach as right and good: going to church, contributing to the poor, praying, fasting?

Am I the tax collector or the Pharisee? What was your first reaction to the ending of Fr. McCardle's story? Was it, "Boy that would really be unfair to let in all the sinners and keep out all the people who following all the rules." That is how I reacted to it the first time I heard it.

This is a very relevant parable for our theme of Prayer and Faith this year in Generations of Faith. There is an old adage in the Church that says, "As we pray, so we believe." (Lex orandi, lex credendi) So how we pray says a lot about how we believe. Do we pray as the Pharisee did or do we pray from the understanding the tax collector had?

Jesus' parable, and the one about the last judgement, focus on an aspect of religion that is very important: chosen-ness. All religions, ours included, or maybe even ours especially, have this notion that those of us in the religion are chosen. In itself that is not good or bad but all too often throughout history, right up to our day, an understanding of chosen-ness like that of the Pharisee and the people outside the gates of heaven has led to religion being used to enslave, pillage, and destroy those who were not so chosen.

The human reality is that all our worldly experience of being chosen is that those who are chosen are chosen because of some attribute they have: they are smarter or bigger or prettier or faster or more well connected than others. So to be chosen is something we have to earn by what we do or are. That wordly experience of being chosen is diametrically opposed to God's notion of chosen-ness. Throughout all of our salvation history, the chosen ones of God are chosen despite their lack of worthiness. The prophets continually reminded the people of Israel that they were chosen by God despite their smallness and their lack of importance. The apostles wouldn't make it through the first line of resume review. We Christians are chosen by God to be the body of Christ who is come to save the world, not because we deserve it, or are important, or because we have done great things. We are important, and we do great things BECAUSE we have been chosen.

The Pharisee's prayer is like someone trying to have a conversation with you while holding up a mirror in front of them so they can see how wonderful they are. I am sure most of us have had to endure conversations like that. It is not an enjoyable experience. Listen to how Mary prays when she is reminded by her cousin Elizabeth that she is to be the mother of the Messiah:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior for He has looked with favor on his lowly servant. All generations will call me blessed for the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is His name.

Mary's prayer is all about God's power and God's gift, not about her at all. It reflects a right belief about God and chosen-ness.

In a few minutes we will pray just as Mary and as the tax collector when we say: O Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; only say the word and I shall be healed. We say that knowing that God has already spoken the Word because He chose to speak it, not because we deserve it. We are chosen for God's work, not for our benefit. And that is the best thing that could happen to anyone.

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