The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25 - 24 October 2010

Contemporary Reading: “An Ancient Catholic”, Richard Rodriguez
Sirach 35:12-17
Psalm 84:1-6
II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Saint Luke 18:9-14


If you have gone to Sunday School, or even if you’ve just gone to church sporadically over time, you will likely recognize these two groups: the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  From the context of the gospels, both groups represent an opposition to the teachings of Jesus, and most Christians have never explored the differences between the two groups.  That there were two such distinct groups, both political and cultural, was a result of the history of Israel from the time of the Babylonian Captivity, when a significant number of Jews came under the influences of what would be Persian thought, and the later struggles against the forces of Hellenism following the conquests of Alexander the Great, and finally the cultural push of the Romans.  Sadducees represented the elites, most especially the hereditary priestly offices of the Temple.  They were the aristocrats of Israeli society.  They, naturally, emphasized the Temple and its system of worship and sacrifice.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, stood by the rather new innovation of the Synagogue and the importance of the Mosaic law and its interpretation.  The Sadducees stood by the primacy of the Torah, and the Pharisees looked to the interpretation of the scriptures by Rabbi’s as the guide to life.  Pharisees also stood by some innovations that came from Persian influence, namely, the notion of angels, and of life after death.  Pharisees were the precursors of the modern rabbinic system, that is the backbone of Jewish life today. 

First Reading: Sirach 35:12-17

Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
For the Lord is the one who repays,
and he will repay you sevenfold.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it
and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

The Last Judgment (Sistine Chapel)

The ties of the lesson from Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) to the Gospel for today are natural and supportive.  The content of Sirach is largely aphoristic, being composed mainly of sayings, maxims, and clichés common in the Ancient Near East.  The author writes about God as the totally other judge, not swayed by status in life, or achievement.  The verses start out with a good theology of stewardship, noting the importance of the one who gives (and we who are to in turn give back), and then as a development from that idea, the notion that God is the one who repays, as well.  The picture of God is not one of a divine accountant, keeping tabs and score, but rather as a totally independent judge.  This judge shows absolutely no partiality.  Under this judge, the one who has been wronged (note the Publican in the Gospel reading) can pray as well as one who might be more righteous.

Breaking open Sirach:

1.     Does God judge your life, and if so, how?
2.     How are God’s judgments made known to you?
3.     How does God repay you?

Psalm 84:1-6 Quam dilecta

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

The Herodian Temple at the Western Wall

In this psalm we are met with almost erotic language about how the psalmist longs for the Temple.  The intensity of the Hebrew is softened in the English, especially this ecclesiastical English.  We do have glimpses, however, of the intensity: “desire” and “longing”, along with “my heart” and “my flesh” give ample clues to the intensity of the writing.  Also hinted at is the relationship of the Temple to the people.  For many it was not the chapel down the street, but something that remained at a distance.  One had to become a pilgrim to approach it, traversing many miles through hostile territory to come near.  Of special interest is the psalmist’s notion that the hostile way is changed to a “place of springs,” noting an almost messianic interpretation of what will happen when the true pilgrim encounters the difficulties of the desert. 

Breaking open Psalm 84:
1.       What is your favorite place to be?  Why?  What does it bring to you?
2.       How does your place of worship rate?
3.       Who finds a nest, such as the sparrow, in your church?

II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

A lyre player pours out a libation

Part of this lesson appeared last Sunday in the propers for Saint Luke’s day.  Some explanations are due, however.  A libation was a drink offering given to a god.  A cup of wine, for example, would have been poured on the earth as the offering.  It is this common notion, that Paul uses to illustrate his current condition – “I am poured out as a libation”.  In this simple phrase Paul likens his own demise as an offering to God as well.  Other images come from the games – namely a race, where the final reward, a wreath of laurel, is mentioned. 

The second paragraph graphically addresses Paul’s situation, being under house arrest.  Even in these difficulties, as Paul sees in all his other difficulties, God is present with a sustaining hand.  The image of the lion’s mouth might be a reflection of Daniel’s predicament in the lions’ den.  However, Paul sees that God does not save him for Paul’s own sake, but rather for the sake of the Gospel.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. Are there aspects of your life that you have completed, or with which you are finished?
  2. How did God support you in them?
  3. What is unfinished in your life?

Saint Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (a tax collector) follows immediately after last Sunday’s parable of the Dishonest Judge.  In this reading, Luke contrasts two social institutions, namely the Pharisee (see Background, above) and the Tax Collector.  Pharisees with their emphasis on the Mosaic law, and their insistence on following every detail of the law had a confidence in their own righteousness before God.  Tax Collectors, however, inhabited an entirely different social stratum.  They were suspect because they were virtually collaborators with Roman oppression, and they were doubly suspicious since they were able to skim off personal profits for the taxes that they collected for their Roman overseers.  To this social spectrum, Jesus adds themes fond to Luke: mercy, universal salvation, and the failure of the Law as an act of justification.  This device is found elsewhere in the Bible, such as the story of Cain and Abel.  Luke uses it to advance the Pauline notion of justification – not by works, but by faith. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. In what ways are you like the Pharisee?
  2. In what ways are you like the tax collector?
  3. How has God, or others, been merciful to you?

Contemporary Reading: “An Ancient Catholic”, Richard Rodriquez

Is there anyone in the church you regard as a moral example?

A neighbor of mine – a retired Navy officer.  He smokes too much.  Drinks.  Homosexual.  He hangs out at gay bars, where he drinks with his buddies.  But I met him once at a hospital.  It turns out he visits the sick, takes Communion to them.  He works in the rectory of his parish, helps the nun in charge of “community services.”  And every Sunday morning he drives several old women to Mass.  There he sits, toward the back of the church – the head usher.  His job is to assign a heterosexual couple to take up the bread and the wine at the offertory.  He is what the church will not accept officially.  And yet, literally, he is the church.  He is the only smile of welcome parishioners meet.  His are the hands dispensing the body of Christ.  His spirituality is active and companionate and interested.  And – this is most important to me – he is cheerful at a time of despair in the rectory, among priests who claim to have heard the good news.

Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is a cultural writer and commentator.  His views on topics from education and ethnic identity to politics and religion are heard on NPR.  He is also a contributing editor to Pacific News Service.  His first book, Hunger of Memory, drawing upon his boyhood in Catholic schools in Sacramento, California, stirred debate over bilingual education and affirmative action.  His more recent Days of Obligation ranges over many themes, some religious and specifically Catholic.

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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