Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Book of Sirach, a book that Catholics recognize but Protestants and Jews do not. Here the writer claims that God does not have favorites. But God does hold a special place for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. Furthermore, God listens to the prayers of the humble. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus spoke a parable about two men who pray in the Temple. The first one, a Pharisee, thanks God for being better than others and being blessed. The second is a tax collector. He dared not raise his eyes and he beat his breast and asked God for mercy. Jesus then told his disciples that the tax collector was right with God and finished by saying: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I was a seminarian in the early 1990s. The director of the seminary said many things I remember, but I mostly remember this quotation: “If you meet someone who has never heard of Christianity and you give him a book of the four Gospels, he will come away without any belief that the Christian church is obsessed with sex and a strong belief that the Christian church is obsessed with economic justice.”
I write this because it’s a message the we continue to ignore. I don’t wish to diminish the importance of sexual ethics. Sexuality allows us the best of what it means to be human: we are given the opportunity to create life. We are given the opportunity to cooperate with God’s divinity and we should honor that. Proper use of this gift allows us the highest point of what we do, and improper use constitutes among the worst of our sins.
But so often we spend more time caring about sexual ethics than we do caring about economic justice. Both are crucial to our relationship with God and our relationship with each other.
If we look at the two men in today’s Gospel it’s not hard for us to visualize it: this encounter happens every day in our world.
The first man, the Pharisee, is everything he is supposed to be. He is male, well educated, and observes every letter of every law. And in fact, he sounds grateful: he thanks God that he is not unjust or unfaithful “like the rest of mankind.”
But if we really listen to him, he’s not feeling grateful, he’s feeling superior. As a matter of fact he brags about not being a tax collector. In fairness we don’t know the backstory of this Pharisee, but I think we can safely say that he was born well. His society, like ours, did not create economic equality on its own. Some are born rich and some are born poor. Generally, Pharisees were born into wealth that allowed them to study and become scholars. Those born into poverty didn’t have that chance and needed to find a living in ways not of their choosing.
Some of them found no other choice but to become tax collectors. These Jews faced an awful life. They found themselves working for the Roman Empire, collecting taxes from their neighbors and for their oppressors. The Jews they collected from hated them and felt them to be traitors.
And so when the tax collector snuck into the Temple and begged for forgiveness we can understand why the Pharisee saw him with contempt (if at all). After all, the Pharisee obeyed the laws and the tax collector betrayed his people.
But Jesus saw this parable through different eyes. From our history to today we’ve been born into different economic realities. Many of the wealthy claim, much as the pharisee, they deserved or earned this. I remember back in 2008 the US government poured money into the economy to head off a possible depression and many of these subsidies went to the very fund managers who gambled away their customers’ money. Naively, I expected them to be humble, or at least grateful. But I remember one money manager being asked about this and this was his response: “I deserve this money because I’m smart enough to turn this money into more profit.” He neglected to admit that it was greed, not intelligence, that caused the recession.
Now, before you think this is another guilt trip placed in the laps of the fortunate, it’s not. Let’s broaden this a little: we say we value teachers more than stock brokers, but do we? And if we do, can we tax some of the stock brokers excess to provide for the teacher who needs to find a job over the summer to make ends meet?
This isn’t socialism and I’m not suggesting that everyone work for the same wage. Last month I spoke about the possibility of “baptizing” capitalism, of providing a decent life for everyone. Much like the rich man and Lazarus, our Pharisee may not have even seen the tax collector. And if the Pharisee did see him, I’m thinking he would grumble about how this puppet of the Romans picks his pocket.
But what if the Pharisee saw the tax collector with new eyes? What if the Pharisee somehow recognized that they both seek God, and on some level they need each other? The Pharisee could be more generous with his excess, but we can do more.
For those of us who live in democracies, we can lobby for economic justice. When I used to counsel couples preparing for marriage I would tell them if they showed me their checkbook and credit card bills I could tell what they value. The allocation of their money would tell me what they found important.
And we can look on this on a national level. By any means we are a wealthy nation, but again and again we are told that we have enough money for advanced chemotherapy but not enough for prenatal care. Enough for Viagra but not enough for birth control.
When we look at programs like universal kindergarten we need to stop seeing them as expenses but instead as long term investments. Children learn in Kindergarten that they need to share the attention of teacher with other students and that not all the toys they see are theirs. They grow up learning to play and work well with others. We need to see that guaranteeing adequate nutrition during childhood gives us healthier adults.
And we need to acknowledge that if one person has the skills to manage hedge funds, that person is not more valuable than the person who has the skills to teach.
We need for the Pharisee to look at the tax collector and say: “There is another Jew who prays to God.”