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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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Jacopone da Todi: Jacomo, or James, was born a noble member of the Benedetti family in the northern Italian city of Todi. He became a successful lawyer and married a pious, generous lady named Vanna. 
<p>His young wife took it upon herself to do penance for the worldly excesses of her husband. One day Vanna, at the insistence of Jacomo, attended a public tournament. She was sitting in the stands with the other noble ladies when the stands collapsed. Vanna was killed. Her shaken husband was even more disturbed when he realized that the penitential girdle she wore was for his sinfulness. On the spot, he vowed to radically change his life. </p><p>He divided his possessions among the poor and entered the Secular Franciscan Order (once known as the Third Order). Often dressed in penitential rags, he was mocked as a fool and called Jacopone, or "Crazy Jim," by his former associates. The name became dear to him. </p><p>After 10 years of such humiliation, Jacopone asked to be a member of the Order of Friars Minor(First Order). Because of his reputation, his request was initially refused. He composed a beautiful poem on the vanities of the world, an act that eventually led to his admission into the Order in 1278. He continued to lead a life of strict penance, declining to be ordained a priest. Meanwhile he was writing popular hymns in the vernacular. </p><p>Jacopone suddenly found himself a leader in a disturbing religious movement among the Franciscans. The Spirituals, as they were called, wanted a return to the strict poverty of Francis. They had on their side two cardinals of the Church and Pope Celestine V. These two cardinals, though, opposed Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII. At the age of 68, Jacopone was excommunicated and imprisoned. Although he acknowledged his mistake, Jacopone was not absolved and released until Benedict XI became pope five years later. He had accepted his imprisonment as penance. He spent the final three years of his life more spiritual than ever, weeping "because Love is not loved." During this time he wrote the famous Latin hymn, <i>Stabat Mater</i>. </p><p>On Christmas Eve in 1306 Jacopone felt that his end was near. He was in a convent of the Poor Clares with his friend, Blessed John of La Verna. Like Francis, Jacopone welcomed "Sister Death" with one of his favorite songs. It is said that he finished the song and died as the priest intoned the Gloria from the midnight Mass at Christmas. From the time of his death, Brother Jacopone has been venerated as a saint.</p> American Catholic Blog By immersing our lives in the rhythm of the season, charity can flood our souls and fill us with the happiness for which we were created. We awake Christmas morning prepared to celebrate the birth of our Savior not as a memory but as a profound experience of God’s redemptive love.

 
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