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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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Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions: Andrew Dung-Lac was one of 117 people martyred in Vietnam between 1820 and 1862. Members of this group were beatified on four different occasions between 1900 and 1951. All were canonized by St. John Paul II. 
<p>Christianity came to Vietnam (then three separate kingdoms) through the Portuguese. Jesuits opened the first permanent mission at Da Nang in 1615. They ministered to Japanese Catholics who had been driven from Japan. </p><p>The king of one of the kingdoms banned all foreign missionaries and tried to make all Vietnamese deny their faith by trampling on a crucifix. Like the priest-holes in Ireland during English persecution, many hiding places were offered in homes of the faithful. </p><p>Severe persecutions were again launched three times in the 19th century. During the six decades after 1820, between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were killed or subjected to great hardship. Foreign missionaries martyred in the first wave included priests of the Paris Mission Society, and Spanish Dominican priests and tertiaries. </p><p>Persecution broke out again in 1847 when the emperor suspected foreign missionaries and Vietnamese Christians of sympathizing with a rebellion led by of one of his sons. </p><p>The last of the martyrs were 17 laypersons, one of them a 9-year-old, executed in 1862. That year a treaty with France guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics, but it did not stop all persecution. </p><p>By 1954 there were over a million and a half Catholics—about seven percent of the population—in the north. Buddhists represented about 60 percent. Persistent persecution forced some 670,000 Catholics to abandon lands, homes and possessions and flee to the south. In 1964, there were still 833,000 Catholics in the north, but many were in prison. In the south, Catholics were enjoying the first decade of religious freedom in centuries, their numbers swelled by refugees. </p><p>During the Vietnamese war, Catholics again suffered in the north, and again moved to the south in great numbers. Now the whole country is under Communist rule.</p> American Catholic Blog To replace our sins with virtues may seem like a daunting task, but fortunately we can follow the example of the saints who have 
successfully defeated these sins in their lifetimes. They provide us with a way forward so that we, too, can live holy, virtuous lives.

 
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