>Sunday’s gospel comes from Luke 18:9-14. Again, the players are from different ends of the social spectrum. We have the Pharisee, wealthy, educated, of high social standing, and the tax collector – even by today’s standards, not a popular person. Both enter the temple to pray, but what a disparity of prayer!
The Pharisee wails loudly that he’s not like other people – the unclean and unwanted of first century Palestine: theives, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors; he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income. Wow, I’m impressed. And then there’s the tax collector, who, knowing his unpopularity, his less than perfect existence, without even looking up towards the heavens, beats his breast and declares that he is a sinner and begs for mercy.
Who is more worthy of God’s mercy?
Well, both are. All people are worthy of God’s love and mercy – we just have to ask for it. What Jesus is teaching here, I believe, is how we go about asking for it. A little bit of humility goes a long way.
This parable reminds me of my days as a choir director in a local church when I was eighteen. I remember the women who entered the church perfectly coiffed, dressed to the nines, handbag on arm, cookie cutter models of Jacqueline Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace. Everyone looked up from their devotions when they entered in turn, then quickly averted their eyes. As they took their places up in front on the pulpit side, they would glance around as if to make sure everyone saw them and then they’d make theatrical motions and knee to say their petitions and rosaries, and before rising off the kneelers, they’d look around again.
By contrast, there was a widow with seven children who used to take up the front pew on the epistle side. She’d come in late, the children running behind, most of them dirty-faced with runny noses, threadbare clothes – unusual in the Sixties, in a town that prospered. Even the parish priest used to cluck his tongue at this family and wonder why she bothered.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I know that the socially-prominent women of the parish gave a lot of money and time to the church and that the parish priest often went to dinner at their houses and showed preference at coffee hour. The widow, on the other hand, disappeared after coffee hour, usually taking a handful of cookies with her in a paper napkin. People watched her go and never said a word.
I wish now that I had had the courage to ask the widow how she was getting on, and if she needed help with anything, even babysitting. I guess I was afraid of losing the good will of the Ladies of the Parish. You see, that mother and her children were so much like my family – a single parent in a time when single parents weren’t commonplace, and when it was a disgrace to be on Welfare and get food stamps, and to have so many children you couldn’t afford to care for. The difference was that the Ladies of the Parish knew me, knew my mother and all of her brood and said nothing to my face. They applauded my courage, my desire, they assumed, to pull myself up from my bootstraps.
What they didn’t know then was that their opinion didn’t mean anything to me then or now. I learned a lesson from that time of my life, right after my mother died, when I was a choir director in a small town parish. I learned that no matter who you are, or where you’re from, God hears the prayers offered. How we offer them makes a difference to each other.