Reflection for Sunday – October 23, 2022

Readings: Sirach 35:15-17,20-22;  2 Timothy 4:6-8.16-18; Luke 18:9-14 
Preacher: Deirdre McKiernan Hetzler

A famous theologian, commenting on St. Paul’s assertion that the gospel can be a stumbling block, once said that the danger is stumbling over the wrong thing!

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a familiar one, isn’t it? So familiar that we often think of it only as a cautionary tale about being humble. Rather than being self-righteous. There is truth in that, of course. After all, Luke says Jesus told the story to some who considered themselves righteous. But what if our explanation is too simple? What if there’s a deeper lesson here?

Pharisees, after all, sincerely wanted to please God. But were often misguided. Thinking that the only way to please God was by scrupulously keeping all the rules. And this fellow goes way past those requirements! But the tax collector, knowing his actions can’t defend him, throws himself on God’s mercy. Despite his sins, Jesus says he goes away justified.

What if this parable is really more about God? God who alone can judge the human heart? God who may decide to justify those we consider ungodly? The God who shows no partiality, as Sirach says. (Making us all God’s beloved family.)

We live in an increasingly polarized church and county. Are you and I sometimes tempted to fall into the same trap as the self-focused Pharisee? To look down on others whom we consider “other”?  Those who don’t live up to the rules as we understand them? To “demonize” those with whom we disagree politically? (That is not to deny that there are times that require us to take a stand—however, how we do that matters.)

So how do we, created in the image of God, handle our relationships with others?  Especially when we find ourselves doing the “us and them” thing? Could the tax collector’s stance offer a clue? By acknowledging our own frailty, asking for help from our loving and merciful God? God whose grace makes any faithful life possible, as the letter to Timothy implies? We are, after all, all sinners. Even the Church itself is sinful. Forgiven sinners, yes. But also Beloved. Especially Beloved!

Pope Francis suggests the solution lies in the “culture of encounter.” He imagines a culture that encounters differences by seeking social bonds of friendship and common ground. A climate of trust going beyond our comfort zones. A culture of respect. Of listening. Of curiosity. Beyond political or social “groupthink.”  Asking genuine questions out of curiosity can help us to be more aware of God’s presence in others. Easy? Not at all!

My favorite example predates Francis, but is illustrative. I heard former Senator George Mitchell tell the story himself when at a dinner years ago. President Clinton had sent Mitchell to Northern Ireland to assist in brokering a peace in the late 1990s. After getting to know them, Mitchell invited the delegates from both sides to dinner at his apartment. There would be only one rule: no conversation about politics or religion.

They were to tell each other stories about their families and their hobbies. By way of example, he said, “I love the opera. I have heard (naming his favorite) so many times that I know every one of the lines before it’s sung. That’s why I understand you all!” Mitchell is credited with negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, ending the paramilitary fighting in N.I. That didn’t end all disagreements, but it did achieve peace.

A more “everyday” example involves a dear friend and her neighbor.  They have very different understandings of church. Are polar opposites in politics. Yet, they remain friends. Sharing a chuckle at one another’s foibles. Celebrating successes. Delivering meals in hard times. Checking up on each other in bad weather. They live as if they are each committed, aware or not, to the truth that we are all God’s Beloved. And they care for each other out of that conviction.

Jesus calls us to follow him in lives of love and forgiveness. Healing differences and reaching out to those considered “other.” Living the gospel faithfully is a lifelong process. But we know that God’s grace is sufficient for us. As Sirach says, the prayer of those who serve God will reach to the clouds. God will not delay.

Deirdre McKiernan Hetzler
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