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Bible Reflections View Comments

Taking a Back Seat
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, October 27, 2013
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Several weeks after Pope Francis was elected, a photo circulated rapidly through news and social media sites as yet more proof of the pope’s reputation for humility. There was the pope, sitting in the last row of the chapel at the Domus Sancta Martae guest house. Later stories explained that he had merely paused there for a short time of prayer before daily Mass, but the image was powerful, not least because it was so unexpected to see the pontiff in the back row.

Luke is clear in the introduction to the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee that Jesus was speaking to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Many of the religious leaders of his day had fallen into the trap of believing their own PR.

There’s a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them” along any number of ideological fault lines. Convinced of the rightness of our position, we despise anyone who holds a different belief, even a different opinion, and insults fly in every direction. This happens in our families, our schools and workplaces, throughout our everyday lives. And it happens in our religious gatherings far more often than it should. Basic human charity, to say nothing of Christian generosity, is forgotten in the name of some abstract principle.

Jesus was a master storyteller, and his parables often have small details on which the whole message hangs. In this case, if we’re overly impressed by the Pharisee’s carefully constructed rhetoric, we might miss that he “spoke this prayer to himself.”

The tax collector has no such illusions about himself. He knows that he’s a sinner, that he doesn’t truly belong in the great temple. Yet here he is, because he is drawn to the holiness of God’s presence. He’s not there to look around at who else is praying that day. He’s probably not even feeling resentful of the dirty looks he’s getting from the regular churchgoers. His prayer is focused entirely and exclusively on God’s mercy. This is why, as Jesus tells us, he goes home justified. He’s gotten outside of himself and his problems to a place where God can truly touch his heart and save his soul.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, never gets beyond the point of talking to himself, impressing himself with his own virtue, focused on his superior nature, his great talent for religious niceties, his particular spiritual giftedness. He knows how the prayers are to be said—but perhaps has forgotten why. He seems to think he’s saving himself by his own efforts.

Those among the poor, the sinners, the people who knew how much they needed salvation, responded quickly and profoundly to Jesus’s message of the kingdom. Some of the religious leaders seemed to decide that Jesus had nothing to say to them. Jesus uses his parables to shake them out of their spiritual complacency.

Perhaps these same Gospel stories still speak to us today because we too need to be shaken up a bit. We need to be reminded again and again to be sure that we’re hearing the God of the prophets, the God of the Gospels, the God of mercy, peace and inclusion. If these stories shock us, then there’s a pretty good chance that when we thought we were praying, we were just speaking words to ourselves.


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John Paul II: “Open wide the doors to Christ,” urged John Paul II during the homily at the Mass when he was installed as pope in 1978. <br /><br />Born in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Jozef Wojtyla had lost his mother, father and older brother before his 21st birthday. Karol’s promising academic career at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. While working in a quarry and a chemical factory, he enrolled in an “underground” seminary in Kraków. Ordained in 1946, he was immediately sent to Rome where he earned a doctorate in theology. <br /><br />Back in Poland, a short assignment as assistant pastor in a rural parish preceded his very fruitful chaplaincy for university students. Soon he earned a doctorate in philosophy and began teaching that subject at Poland’s University of Lublin. <br /><br />Communist officials allowed him to be appointed auxiliary bishop of Kraków in 1958, considering him a relatively harmless intellectual. They could not have been more wrong! <br /><br />He attended all four sessions of Vatican II and contributed especially to its <em>Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World</em>. Appointed as archbishop of Kraków in 1964, he was named a cardinal three years later. <br /><br />Elected pope in October 1978, he took the name of his short-lived, immediate predecessor. Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. In time, he made pastoral visits to 124 countries, including several with small Christian populations. <br /><br />He promoted ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, especially the 1986 Day of Prayer for World Peace in Assisi. He visited Rome’s Main Synagogue and the Western Wall in Jerusalem; he also established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel. He improved Catholic-Muslim relations and in 2001 visited a mosque in Damascus, Syria. <br /><br />The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, a key event in John Paul’s ministry, was marked by special celebrations in Rome and elsewhere for Catholics and other Christians. Relations with the Orthodox Churches improved considerably during his ministry as pope. <br /><br />“Christ is the center of the universe and of human history” was the opening line of his 1979 encyclical, <em>Redeemer of the Human Race</em>. In 1995, he described himself to the United Nations General Assembly as “a witness to hope.” <br /><br />His 1979 visit to Poland encouraged the growth of the Solidarity movement there and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe 10 years later. He began World Youth Day and traveled to several countries for those celebrations. He very much wanted to visit China and the Soviet Union but the governments in those countries prevented that. <br /><br />One of the most well-remembered photos of his pontificate was his one-on-one conversation in 1983 with Mehmet Ali Agca, who had attempted to assassinate him two years earlier. <br /><br />In his 27 years of papal ministry, John Paul II wrote 14 encyclicals and five books, canonized 482 saints and beatified 1,338 people. <br /><br />In the last years of his life, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was forced to cut back on some of his activities. <br /><br />Pope Benedict XVI beatified John Paul II in 2011, and Pope Francis canonized him in 2014. American Catholic Blog Lord, may I have balance and measure in everything—except in Love. —St. Josemaría Escrivá

 
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