But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” (Luke 9:13)
Ralph Waldo Emerson in describing a weed called it “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” That’s how God views a sinner, like a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.
But how many people throughout history, do you suppose, have been written off as weeds in the conventional sense, held in contempt by the self-righteous in the words of today’s gospel? The number must be astronomical!
Ever since our ancestors came down out of the trees and began walking upright, a subtle lie has persisted in human thinking. “Those” people outside our circle are not like us. They’re different, less important, less worthy, less human. In varying degrees that lie is used to justify smugness, prejudice, discrimination, or worse. Historically, when taken to the extreme, it becomes the basis to justify all manner of injustice from slavery to war, from hate crimes to genocide.
The attitude of holding others unlike ourselves in contempt is widespread, but what results is usually not so extreme. We’re all routinely guilty of it in one way or another, in at least its milder forms. It may surface, for example, when a health conscious non-smoker encounters a smoker; or on a busy two- lane highway, when a driver in a hurry follows too closely behind another who is traveling at or below the speed limit. This latter type at its extreme results in “road rage.”
In our tendency to pigeonhole people, we use categories like age, sex, social standing, sexual orientation, color, nationality, and religion to distance ourselves from those who are different from us. American history records how common it’s been for each generation to look down on the latest wave of immigrants. My own father, for example, an Italian immigrant, as a young man in Rochester NY with a family to support during the Great Depression couldn’t get a job at Eastman Kodak or Bausch and Lomb because policy at both companies openly discriminated against Italians and other nationalities.
So as not to fall into the trap of the self-righteous by considering ourselves better than our forebears, let’s remember that during this century we’ve experienced two World Wars and the Holocaust, a horrific example of genocide. And today in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, and in Kosovo people still kill each other primarily because they worship God differently.
The Pharisee in today’s gospel parable, a respected member of first century Jewish society, uses his faithful observance of Mosaic Law to distance himself from the tax collector, a fellow Jew, a collaborator with the hated Roman authorities. They both go to the same temple to pray, but the Pharisee’s prayer, which smacks of pride, self-congratulation, and condemnation is not pleasing to God. The tax collector’s prayer, on the other hand, in which he humbly acknowledges his sinfulness and begs God’s forgiveness, brings him justification, right relationship with God.
The self-righteous Pharisee follows the letter of the law, but ignores its spirit. He focuses on the shortcomings of the tax collector, while ignoring his own. To his way of thinking, he needs nothing outside himself. The tax collector by contrast knows he is nothing without God’s grace.
The first reading echoes the parable’s message. Sirach, a teacher who lived two hundred years before Christ, warns that God’s ways are not our ways. For, unlike mortal judges who may be swayed by external acts of piety, God alone sees into the human heart. This explains why of all human failings, Jesus is particularly upset by hypocrisy. It also explains why the prayer of the lowly, society’s weakest and most defenseless members, in Sirach’s words, pierces the clouds and does not rest till it reaches…the Most High. In God’s eyes, you never stand so tall as when you are on your knees.
Scripture tells us repeatedly that no one has the right to judge another person. That job is already taken. Yet the judgmental, “holier-than-thou” attitude of looking down on others while being pleased with oneself, condemned in today’s gospel, stubbornly persists, even in otherwise well-meaning people. Last month’s annual meeting of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries, for example, held here in Rochester provoked that very attitude in a small but vocal group of righteous church members.
Assuming, apparently, that gay and lesbian Catholics have no need for, or perhaps no right to, Christian ministry, this group, Citizens for a Decent Community, attempted to stop the meeting from occurring. Its representatives passed out thousands of fliers after Sunday Masses at churches throughout the diocese, including our own, Church of the Transfiguration, containing misleading, salacious, and downright libelous claims denouncing the meeting and our bishop, Matthew H. Clark.
It appears that these basically good folks, unlike Our Heavenly Father, look at gay men and women and see “weeds” in the conventional sense. This attitude spawns homophobia, which at its extreme can result in what happened in Laramie, Wyoming just last week – the brutal, bludgeoning murder of a 21-year-old gay man, Matthew Shepard, a college freshman, who spoke four languages and dreamed of becoming a foreign diplomat. At his funeral, a protestor carried a placard that read: “God hates fags!
That same kind of twisted thinking justified the killing on Friday night in Buffalo NY of gynecologist, Dr. Bernard Slepian, who performed abortions. While standing in the kitchen of his home, his family present, a sniper’s bullet came crashing through the window and ended Dr. Slepian’s life. The assassin was a “pro-Life” zealot.
In Bishop Matthew’s written response to local protestors of last month’s national meeting, We All Need Redeeming, distributed in diocesan church bulletins a few weeks ago, he wrote: “We cannot judge the spiritual condition of another because we cannot know the other’s subjective disposition before God.” In other words, only God can read the human heart. Perhaps, the bishop should have added the warning from today’s gospel – “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, while the person who humbles himself shall be exalted” or maybe this one also from Luke — “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”
In making these comments, I need to be careful not to fall into the same trap of self-righteousness that I’m faulting! For you see, when you point your finger accusingly at another, three fingers point back at you!
“Be patient –God isn’t finished with me yet,” is a popular slogan which captures a profound truth about human nature. Every one of us is capable of change and growth as long as we live. That philosophy guides me as a family court judge, when I deal with cases, for example, involving child molesters, wife beaters, juvenile delinquents who commit vicious crimes, or warring parents embroiled in bitter custody disputes.
Jesus never wrote off anyone as hopeless or worthless, and neither can we. You see, there’s this thing called grace, God quietly at work in everyone’s life. That’s why we can’t give up on ourselves or on anyone else. So parents don’t give up on your kids, and kids don’t give up on your parents – there’s hope! Besides, when you look for the good in others, a sage once said, you discover the best in yourself.
Inspired by Emerson’s unconventional definition of a weed; and because my mom and dad used to love to eat salad made from dandelion greens that they picked along the roadside on Sunday afternoon drives in the country, I’ll conclude with one of my favorite stories. (As an aside, in last week’s homily, you’ll recall, we heard about penne pasta ala marinara and bruschetta, today it’s insalata di cicoria with a little oil and vinegar!)
“A man who took great pride in his lawn found himself with large and recurring crops of dandelions. Although he tried every method he knew to get rid of them, they continued to plague him. Finally, in desperation, he wrote to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, enumerating all the things he had tried and concluded with the question: “What shall I do now?”
After a while, the reply finally came: “We suggest you learn to love them!”
We suggest you learn to love them. When dealing with people unlike ourselves, that’s good advice for all of us.
Anthony J. Sciolino
Sirach 35:12-14; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Luke 18:9-14. 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. October 25, 1998. (Cycle A)