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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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Bede the Venerable: Bede is one of the few saints honored as such even during his lifetime. His writings were filled with such faith and learning that even while he was still alive, a Church council ordered them to be read publicly in the churches. 
<p>At an early age Bede was entrusted to the care of the abbot of the Monastery of St. Paul, Jarrow. The happy combination of genius and the instruction of scholarly, saintly monks produced a saint and an extraordinary scholar, perhaps the most outstanding one of his day. He was deeply versed in all the sciences of his times: natural philosophy, the philosophical principles of Aristotle, astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, ecclesiastical history, the lives of the saints and, especially, Holy Scripture.</p><p>From the time of his ordination to the priesthood at 30 (he had been ordained deacon at 19) till his death, he was ever occupied with learning, writing and teaching. Besides the many books that he copied, he composed 45 of his own, including 30 commentaries on books of the Bible. </p><p>Although eagerly sought by kings and other notables, even Pope Sergius, Bede managed to remain in his own monastery till his death. Only once did he leave for a few months in order to teach in the school of the archbishop of York. Bede died in 735 praying his favorite prayer: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As in the beginning, so now, and forever.” </p><p>His <i>Ecclesiastical History of the English People</i> is commonly regarded as of decisive importance in the art and science of writing history. A unique era was coming to an end at the time of Bede’s death: It had fulfilled its purpose of preparing Western Christianity to assimilate the non-Roman barbarian North. Bede recognized the opening to a new day in the life of the Church even as it was happening.</p> American Catholic Blog The truth is that suffering can be a beautiful thing, if we have the courage to trust God with everything, like Jesus did upon the cross.

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