Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Sir 35:12-14, 16018; 2Tim 4:6-8, 16-18; Lk 18:9-14

Today’s gospel is a well-known gospel that causes us all to pause and examine our consciences. The Pharisee shows a lack of two qualities that the tax collector does have: shame and empathy.

Shame is a great gift we were given in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they realized they were exposed. They felt shame and tried to hide from each other and from God. Shame kept them in touch with the reality of their relationship with God after they had strayed into falsehood. Shame is what one feels when she violates her own standards of the kind of person she wants to be. The consequences of her actions come at her faster than she can lower her standards. It is not a reaction to a single, isolated bad act, though that often occasions it. It is rather a reaction to one’s whole experience of being a person. The tax collector is gifted with this experience of shame.

Adam and Eve hid. The tax collector “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven.” The experience of shame has great potential for making us feel separated from others. But when it is acknowledged, confessed, and we determine to amend, it has great potential for joining us to others. This is the second quality the tax collector has: empathy.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls Levi the tax collector and then he and several other tax collectors “have a meeting.” In their shame they identify with each other. Identification always precedes persuasion. They identify with, empathize with not only each other’s shame, but with that deep, inner experience called “conscience” that makes them aspire to do better. It is that aspiration—to turn their life and their will over to the care of God—that Jesus empathizes and identifies with.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, is quite self-impressed. He puts his personality before principles. Pharisee’s (a word that is used as a slur today) do not believe in conversion. They do not form a community around a common love or principle, but instead they form around a scapegoat, a “them, not us.” They stereotype a category of people and declare them immune to the grace of God. In Pride they use the contrast to imply their own virtue and that of their people.

This gospel is often used to teach humility. Humility is living in the truth. Acknowledging shame allows us to live in the truth and help others do the same. Like Jesus, we live by a law that was imposed on us. Unlike Him, we’re bound to fall short. So through shame and empathy the tax collector—and we—came to Jesus. It was a single realization that brought them together: each realized that his life was a mess. Then he could be saved.

That’s how it works: First the heat, then the light. It is never otherwise.