Several years ago, Christians around the world were shocked and saddened by the execution of twenty-one Egyptian Christian men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fell under the power of ISIS. This martyrdom is just one of the more dramatic examples of abuse and oppression that seems so prevalent in the contemporary world. Where is God in all this? Does he pay attention to poor and the oppressed? The Readings for this Sunday dwell on these and related issues.
Reading 1 Sir 35:12-14, 16-18
The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.
Sirach appears only infrequently in the Lord’s Day lectionary, but we did hear this Wisdom book about two months ago, on the 22nd Sunday of OT Year C. I made several introductory comments on Sirach as a whole in that post, which I will not repeat here.
Sirach, the most comprehensive of the Wisdom books, can be understood as divided into three parts: (1) advice for the young man [chs. 1-23]; (2) advice for the mature man [chs. 24-43]; and (3) the praise of the men of old [chs. 44-51]. This Sunday’s reading comes in the middle of the second section: advice for the mature man.
In Sirach 33-39, Ben Sira continues with more advice on matters of concern for the man of standing: caution about distributing one’s estate too early in life (33:19–23), guidance for the training of servants (33:24-31), the interpretation of dreams (34:1-8), and the complementarity between liturgical worship and social justice (34:18–35:20). On this last subject, the sage ultimately exhorts his reader to acts of mercy toward the poor and oppressed, in imitation of God, who is merciful. This leads him into a concluding prayer that God will have mercy on Israel, judge her enemies, restore her tribes, and renew blessing upon Jerusalem, its Temple and priesthood (36:1-17).
The theme of our reading, Sir 35:12-18, continues the theme of perseverance in prayer that we witnessed in last week’s Lord’s Day readings. Sirach mentions that God is “not unduly partial toward the weak,” meaning that God does not consider the weak to be in the right merely for the fact that they are weak. Weakness, poverty, or other disadvantages do not justify any and every action of the disadvantaged person, nor do they automatically confer the mantle of righteousness on him. Nonetheless, God is particularly attentive to the cries of the poor for justice and salvation. God is sensitive to the vulnerability of those without the resources to defend and support themselves. God is especially solicitous for those whose only hope is in Him.
When we read the entire chapter Sir 35, we realize that one of the major themes is the inter-relatedness of proper worship and charity towards the poor. Sirach 25:2 says, “He who offers alms sacrifices a thank-offering.” The thank offering was the Old Covenant precursor of the Eucharist. This verse emphasizes a mystical connection between proper liturgical worship and acts of charity.
This was well-understood in medieval Christianity. Observe this painting of a medieval saint. The saint is portrayed distributing food to the poor on the left, but his food distribution intentionally resembles the distribution of the Eucharist. Furthermore, the looks and posture of the saint mimic in every particular the appearance of the bishop on the right, who is dressed in liturgical garments as he blesses what appears to be a sack of flour and jug of wine, offered by the laity to be made into the Eucharistic species. Charity is liturgical and the liturgy is charitable.
P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
R. (7a) The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the Lord hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
Psalm 34 is described as a Psalm David composed after escaping from the Philistine king Abimelech (perhaps a title or throne name of King Achish; see 1 Sam 21:12-14), where he was in danger of his life. Much of Book I of the Psalter (pss 1-41) is dominated by the image of David the suffering servant, at the mercy of his enemies and the forces of evil in the world. Psalm 34 is pure consolation for the righteous oppressed of this world, who find themselves victims of the powerful, the wealthy, and the unscrupulous.
2. Our Second Reading is 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18
I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day, and not only to me,
but to all who have longed for his appearance.
At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf,
but everyone deserted me.
May it not be held against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.
To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The Second Reading at this time in the liturgical year is marching through the Pastoral Epistles, but once again we have a providential correlation in theme.
St. Paul’s authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Tim, Titus) is disputed by some, but most admit that at least parts of 2 Timothy are genuine. For my part, I have no doubts St. Paul composed the Pastorals, and would refer to the work of Swiss scholar and New Testament historian Bo Reicke for a defense of that position. In any event, in this second reading we see St. Paul in a similar situation to David in the Psalm. Both were in positions of vulnerability, under the power of an evil monarch. David was delivered; St. Paul has faith that he will be, too.
Some believe St. Paul wrote 2 Timothy while being tried before the imperial court of Nero before ultimately being put to death. We hear a note of sadness and loneliness in Paul’s remark that no one came to assist him at this defense. As Christians, we can often feel abandoned. Sometimes we are persecuted for the faith, and even our brothers and sisters in faith distance themselves from us, not wishing to be entangled in the persecution we are experiencing. Through it all, St. Paul finds consolation in Jesus alone, Jesus who himself was completely abandoned by his companions when he suffered his Passion. St. Paul knows he will suffer the same fate. When he says, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom,” he does not mean that he will necessarily be acquitted and preserve his physical life. The threat of evil is ultimately the temptation to do evil, to sin. St. Paul is confident that the Lord will preserve him in holiness until his martyrdom, which will usher him into the heavenly kingdom. In these trying times for Christians all over the world, let’s ask God for the grace not to fear death, but to see it as our entrance into the fullness of eternal life. The twenty-one Egyptian martyrs set us an example of this courage and faith.
3. Our Gospel is Lk 18:9-14:
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off 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.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus tells this parable in an almost humorous fashion. The proud Pharisee “speaks his prayer to himself.” He mostly talks about himself in his prayer; in fact, he is praising himself and even praying to himself! The Pharisee has gotten himself confused with God. That’s the essence of pride.
The tax collector simply cries to God for mercy, and receives it. Take note that this does not mean the tax collector was a “good man.” Many tax collectors were unjust, abusive persons who took advantage of others in society, even and including the poor. Jesus’ parable is a bit shocking for his contemporaries, because most Jews were justifiably irate at the way Jewish tax collectors collaborated with the Roman regime. They were parasites on society and a social scourge, similar to how we would view drug dealers today. Imagine: “A drug lord went up to pray, ‘Oh, God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” That would be something similar to the impact for Jesus’ fellow Jews.
Jesus’ point is not that it is good to collaborate with an oppressive regime and cheat the poor, nor that fasting is bad and greed, dishonesty, and adultery is good. Jesus’ point is that pride can overshadow all other sins, and that if we have attained all other human virtues but retained pride in ourselves, we are like someone who has not even begun the spiritual life. The spiritual life begins with the acknowledgement of our sinfulness and our need. Then, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we should progress in holiness, never forgetting that “the merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness” (CCC §2009). This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes in the Catechism:
The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.
“After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.” —St. Therese of Lisieux
The antidote to pride is total abandonment to the mercy of God, and total trust in his grace to empower us to turn from sin and live charity.