Sunday Scriptures

The ‘Winners’ Of God’s Mercy

by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

As I write these words, Major League Baseball’s postseason is in full swing, so to speak.

Growing up a Mets fan,  I am unfortunately familiar with being on the losing side. Following the Mets through thick and thin (mostly thin) has made me ponder: Why does every game have to have a loser? Can’t there be a game where everybody wins? Hold on to that thought and consider this Sunday’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Luke frames the scene by telling us that “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”

By offering this explanation, the evangelist might steer us into understanding the parable as a straightforward lesson about not behaving badly. Yet Jesus, the master teacher and storyteller, has more up his sleeve.

As we read further, we meet two very different characters, a Pharisee and a tax collector. Our sense of the Pharisees as they are portrayed in the Gospels predisposes us to view the Pharisee of the parable as the villain and to view the tax collector as the hero.

That’s not how the parable’s very first audience would have seen them.

In her insightful book entitled “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” Amy-Jill Levine explains, “For first-century Jews, Jesus’s description of this particular Pharisee would have been taken as a humorous representative of a character type, the ‘saint,’ and not a representative of popular scorn.”

By fasting twice a week and paying tithes, he goes well over and above what was expected of him. As for the Pharisee’s disparaging reference to the tax collector, this parable’s first-century Jewish audience would have nodded vigorously in approval. There was nothing heroic about tax collectors: They were regarded with contempt as complicit with the Roman overlords who ruled Judea.

If we side with the Pharisee and against the tax collector, then we fall into the trap that the master storyteller has carefully set to surprise us and to coax us into examining our consciences. If we applaud the tax collector and disparage the Pharisee we are guilty of being convinced of our own righteousness and of despising everyone else.

Now, back to the business of winners and losers. In the translation that is used in the lectionary, Jesus concludes that “the latter,” that is, the tax collector, “went home justified, not the former,” namely, the Pharisee.

Levine offers a different take on the original Greek of this verse: “To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified, alongside that one.”

There are no losers. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector come out winners, each in his own way. Both went up to the Temple to pray.

The Pharisee offers a sincere prayer of gratitude, thanking God that he has been allowed to follow the narrow path that leads to life and to avoid sin. The tax collector, with equal sincerity, acknowledges his sinfulness and his need for God’s mercy.

This Sunday’s reading from Sirach assures us: “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites…The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens.”

When it comes to prayer, we aren’t competing with each other for God’s attention. Saints and sinners, Pharisees or tax collectors, grateful or penitent, we are all winners because God’s goodness and mercy are ample enough for us all.

Readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.