Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
This reading from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) was obviously chosen to go with the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, as the caption indicates.
During the heyday of Biblical Theology, the wisdom literature was somewhat under a cloud. This was because it seemed hard to fit it in with the salvation-historical perspective that Biblical Theology had recovered.
This wisdom literature appears to deal with general religious and ethical truths and problems, quite detached from the concrete heres and nows of salvation history.
Typical of this attitude is the legend that Professor C. Ernest Wright constantly told his classes at McCormick and Harvard that he could not defend the place of Proverbs in the canon!
Now, however, there has been a reaction. The wisdom literature has a place in the canon that is as central as that of the salvation-historical and apocalyptic writings.
And Jesus understood himself quite as much as the bearer of the heavenly wisdom (thus holding an implicit wisdom Christology, which came to flower in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel) as he understood himself as the eschatological prophet, the announcer and bringer of the kingdom of God.
He does deal in what we have recently somewhat despised as “general truths of religion and ethics,” and this passage from Sirach is a worthy accompaniment to the illustrative story of the gospel reading, which also deals with a “general truth of religion and ethics.”
Responsorial Psalm: 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
Very appropriately, this psalm is one of the wisdom psalms. Thus Peake’s Commentary: “In [verses] 11-22 he [the psalmist] offers instruction very much in the style of the wisdom teachers, about the nature and rewards of the good life.”
Similarly, the Jerome Biblical Commentary states: “A wisdom psalm, though it is widely classified as a psalm of thanksgiving.”
The author of 1 Peter takes up this psalm as a commentary on the qualities of the good life as it should be lived by the newly baptized, thus giving his stamp to its Christian application.
Reading II: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
This reading has no direct connection with the other readings of this day but is the conclusion of the reading in course of 2 Timothy. Like the reading for the twenty-eighth Sunday of the year, it is part of the (possibly genuine) farewell letter of Paul to Timothy, into which the “Pastor” has inserted his Church order and defense against Gnosticism.
Paul has apparently been before the court once (the prima actio). It went favorably, but, as he poignantly laments, “All [that is, the Roman Christians] deserted me.” Yet Paul anticipated only death for himself. Nothing here about the hope of release that marked his former imprisonments.
Why did the Roman Christians desert Paul? The letter to the Romans suggests that they may not have been very keen on his version of the Gospel anyhow, and they would hardly want to expose themselves unnecessarily in Nero’s court.
Before very long a dire persecution was to break out over the whole community. (The present writer’s chronology would place Paul’s trial and execution about 60, and the Neronian persecution in which Peter fell in 64, though other chronologies are possible.)
Despite the gloomy prospects, however, Paul is full of ultimate confidence: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.”
Gospel: Luke 18:1-8
This parable is of a type peculiar to Luke. There is no pictorial aspect that points to an eschatological interpretation, as in the normal parable. The story gives its example directly. The disciples are meant to pray, not like the Pharisee, but like the publican.
Other illustrative stories are those of the Good Samaritan, the rich fool, and Dives and Lazarus. They inculcate religious and moral examples of a timeless kind and have no direct relation to Jesus’ eschatological message.
If, however, we allow that Jesus understood himself to be not only the announcer of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom but also the embodiment and spokesman of the divine wisdom (see above), then such parables as these fall naturally into their place as part of his teaching.
The Pharisee was quite right in performing his religious and moral duties. He was not like other people—extortioners, unjust, adulterers. Clearly, Jesus’ hearers would say of the Pharisee that he was a righteous man.
The tax collector, on the other hand, had nothing to commend him. He was no better than the rest of his kind. There was no question but that he was the “bad guy.” Yet Jesus pronounced him to be the “good guy.”
How could Jesus give a verdict that to his hearers would be nothing less than “outrageous” (E. Linnemann)? He did not mean that the Pharisee was wrong in his deeds of morality and piety, or that the tax collector was right in being a swindler and extortioner.
What was wrong about the Pharisee was his approach to God: he prayed with himself; he set before God all his merits, compared himself with the publican, and said with Little Jack Horner, “What a good boy am I!”—thereby smashing his goodness with one blow. He came before God trusting in his own, really genuine righteousness.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knew that he was a bad lot. He would not lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and cried, “Kyrie, eleison!” He was accepted by God because he threw himself on God’s mercy.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University