Last week we read the story of the widow and the unjust judge and how her persistence made him grant her request. We learned that this isn’t a story about God as a judge, but rather an encouragement to persist in prayer.
This week, our readings take us to a focus on being poor.
Our modern culture hates weakness, poverty, and neediness. The world tells us that to get ahead we have to be strong, competent, and self-sufficient. We certainly aren’t supposed to reveal our flaws or fears. This approach lies in stark contrast to our readings today in which we are called to embrace our inherent poverty and allow God to transform it, and us, into incredible riches.
God loves us in our poverty. Just as parents are drawn to the needs of their children, so is God drawn to us in our neediness, especially when we recognize how much we need his help and humbly ask him for it. The Gospel reading shows us this in the powerful story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee approaches God with confident assertion; the tax collector comes humbly before God in his need. As the story unfolds, we see that the tax collector has a much better grasp of his condition before God. He is a model for us of how to approach God, in humility, as a “poor man.” The Gospel way is to admit our utter poverty before God, as did the tax collector. When we do so, God stands ready and eager to fill our emptiness with his own Spirit.
This theme of God’s response to our poverty continues throughout the readings. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” (from the responsorial psalm) and “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds: it does not rest till it reaches its goal” (from the first reading). Reinforce that call to a completely different way of life—one that recognizes and accepts our poverty. The lesson this week shows us that we need a poverty that allows God to become our richness, a weakness that allows God to be our strength, and a neediness that draws God to hear our prayers and answer them.
Unpack the First Reading
The wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach sets the stage for the coming Messiah. He represents the mature religious reflection of Israel in the last couple of centuries before the coming of Christ. In the early Christian Church, Sirach was used as a kind of catechism of righteousness for catechumens and held a very prominent place in the liturgy.
The maturity of Sirach’s conception of righteousness can be seen in this passage. The level of material prosperity, social standing, or power that someone has received doesn’t necessarily describe their righteousness before God. Worldly blessings don’t always signal beatitude, and God’s “not unduly partial toward the weak” either.
In every age, people have been tempted to make surface judgments about other people such as all the rich are refined; all the poor are lazy. Or the reverse: all the rich are cruel; all the poor are humble. Sirach cuts through appearances and states that he “who serves God willingly is heard” and the “prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” Humble service is the hallmark of righteousness, not any accidents of state such as possession or poverty of money, power, or fame.
Unpack the Second Reading
We find Paul reflecting briefly on what awaits him in heaven, a merited crown. Paul says that he has “competed well,” “finished the race,” and “kept the faith.” These are the sources of his merits. Of course, Paul would certainly admit that all of these were only possible by God’s grace. He testifies to God’s work in supplying his every need in ministry in the second half of the reading.
In those days, all the nations were represented in the Roman capital. God made it possible—in an unexpected way—for Paul to complete his apostolic commission at the cultural center of the then-known world. Had he not been arrested in Jerusalem and had to appeal to Rome for a hearing in a higher court, he might never have had the chance to reach all nations with the saving message of Christ. Paul certainly cooperated with God’s direction and grace and so merited his reward, but in the end—as at the end of our reading—to God must be given all “glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Unpack the Gospel
The Pharisees have been mentioned more than once as representative of covenant insiders, or those who belong to God by virtue of his covenant with Israel. Luke’s Gospel is primarily interested in addressing people who have been outside of the covenant of Israel but who have gained access to the covenant through Christ. So in this story that Jesus tells us about a Pharisee (an insider) and a publican or tax collector (an outsider), Luke prefaces the story with an explanation that Jesus was addressing “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” This story isn’t just aimed at Pharisees, but all who trust that their own virtues will win them God’s favor.
The moral of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and the humble exalted. Here, Jesus shows us the mechanics of that reversal of position of the lowly and the proud. It’s humility that’s the fulcrum of the seesaw that brings down the proud and lifts up the lowly. When we come before God with humble hearts waiting on his mercy, then he grants us justice or righteousness or holiness in proportion to our humility. Pride drives away God’s gift of holiness, but humility invites it in.
Reflect and Discuss
With a friend, watch the Opening the Word video reflection on FORMED.org. Then reflect and discuss these questions:
The presenter, Jim Beckman, helps us to see how God does not always see things the way we do. What are some differences you noticed about how the Pharisee approaches God with his prayer and how the tax collector approaches God?
How does being “poor” before God go against the way you have been taught to think about yourself and others?
The readings today encourage us to approach God in our poverty, as a “poor” person. But it is often our deep fears and insecurities that prevent us from admitting our weaknesses and our “pover-ties,” and instead we try to hide them. What do you want to hide? What are you afraid of letting others see? Do you have a deep fear or insecurity inside you that sometimes drives the way you relate to others, especially those closest to you? How does that fear affect your relationship with God?
Reprinted with permission from Augustine Institute from the Opening the Word Leader Guide available on FORMED.org