Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 27 October 2013
(Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34:2-3, 1-19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14 Find the readings here.
Whose prayers are heard by God? The psalm is emphatic: God hears the cries of the poor and needy. God is a God of justice. This doesn’t mean, Sirach points out, that God likes the poor and marginalised better than God likes the rich and powerful. What it does mean, however, is that God will always take the side of the oppressed against the oppressor, because all use of power and resources that result in oppression and marginalisation is fundamentally unjust. But what difference does that make in the real world? I don’t see much social justice around. In our globalised world rocked by economic and ecological crises, it is the poorest who are made to suffer for the greed and mistakes of the rich and powerful. What evidence is there for the reign of a God of justice? It is patchy at best. Is the justice and compassion of God expounded by the sage and celebrated by the psalmist just pie-in-the-sky and wishful thinking?
For a start, the affirmation of God’s justice can challenge our own values. How can we praise God for hearing the cry of the poor and then block our own ears? It can also shape our vision and direct our energies. When we work for justice and with compassion we work alongside God and are empowered by God’s Spirit. Every time we engage in anything which ignores or exploits those without a voice, we are working against God’s purposes. And invoking God’s name over those activities, institutions and movements doesn’t change that fact; it just adds blasphemy to the crime. Whose voice do we listen for – the influential or the poor? Are we hearing what God hears? Whose voice do we answer?
As well as being a spur to right living, faith in God’s justice can also be a source of great hope. True, we may not see it now, but we look forward to the time when our prayer that “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is seen to be answered. If the rest of the world turns a deaf ear, those who are oppressed and hard done by can hold on to the truth that God hears, and that ultimately justice will be done. Paul embodies this hopeful confidence. He has lived his life for God’s approval and that has brought the wrath on the religious and civil authorities upon him. He sits in a Roman jail, facing impending death, deserted by those he had hoped would have the courage to raise their voices in his defence. Nevertheless he does not give up to despair but entrusts himself to the Lord, the just judge, who will reward him for his efforts. Death is not the end. His confidence that God hears him gives meaning to what lies behind him and hope for what lies ahead.
Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector standing praying in the Temple is a well known one, and one which is likely to provoke the response: “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like the Pharisee ….” Touché! Actually, the modern equivalent of the Pharisee is exactly the type of person whose prayer we would expect God to hear. These were the people who took their faith very seriously, who invested huge amounts of time and resources, and were willing to put up with great personal inconvenience in order to perfectly fulfil their religious obligations. The tax collector, by contrast, isn’t the poor forsaken beggar on the street corner. They were the collaborators with the Roman occupying force, the ones who made money out of the oppression of their own people by collecting heavy taxes on behalf of the Romans. And God listens to him? Surely it is his victims’ voices that should be heard by God? The parables of Jesus keep shifting the ground under our feet. We like the notion that God hears the prayer of the poor, even if we don’t live out the implications in our own lives, but the notion that God listens to someone who benefits by actively collaborating with the oppressor …?! The Pharisee’s religious pursuits have lulled him into self-righteousness. The tax collector whose very livelihood exploits oppression for gain is the one who realises how desperately he needs God’s mercy.
In our pursuit of justice, let us beware self-righteousness, but also let us not give up hope. When we become aware of how complicit we are in unjust systems, let us not despair. The heartfelt cry for help is the one that God hears.