October 26-27, 2019, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C
A few weeks ago, my 2 1/2 year old great-grand-daughter Rose was trying to play with her Fisher-Price phonograph. She had figured everything out but how to wind it. I asked her if I could show her how to do that, and she pulled it away from me and emphatically said, "No, I can do it myself!" After a few minutes of trying but not succeeding, she turned back to me, handed me the phonograph and said, "Can you help please?" I showed her how and she went on to play with it happily and competently for a while.
It occurred to me, as I listened to today's parable, that Rose had gone from being like the Pharisee in the Gospel story to being like the tax collector in a matter of moments. Another thing this Gospel brings to mind is listening to people around me rejecting religion. The more I think that, it is not a question of do I need religion or not, but of what kind of religion do I need. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are practicing their religion, just differently. And that difference makes all the difference in the world.
All of the major monotheistic religions start with, and are woven through and through, with an experience of being chosen by God, of being singled out by God for a special part in God’s plan for salvation. Our Judeo-Christian-Catholic tradition is steeped in this notion. From Abraham, to Isaac, to Moses and the Israelites in slavery, through David and the prophets, to John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, Peter and the apostles, and Paul, our story is one of a person or peoples being chosen by God. And it doesn’t stop there, 2000 years ago. How many people here are chosen by God?
All of us are. In baptism we were anointed priest, prophet and king, ritual acknowledgement of our belief that we are chosen for baptism by God, by name, before we are knit in our mother's womb. We are, as Peter tells us in his first letter, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation. And it is important for us to know that we are chosen or we can’t go anywhere with our faith. But we can’t stop there. Unless we understand how God chooses and why, it is a dangerous, dangerous notion.
The critical thing that we have to realize is being chosen by God is not something that is earned. God does not choose those who are worthy to be chosen. This is very different from our human experience of being chosen, isn’t it? In the playground, the best athletes get chosen first; in the classroom, the smartest are chosen for awards; and at least in theory, in real life, it those who have demonstrated skills and knowledge who are chosen for raises and promotions, and for election to public office. For the most part in our lives, one is chosen because of something they are or have done.
Because of this human experience of chosen-ness, we can easily think that the chosen-ness we experience in our religion is earned as well. God chooses us because we are better than those others, who are greedy and dishonest and adulterous, or worse yet, tax collectors. After all we go to church, don’t we? We put money in the collection; we keep the commandments, and some of us have dedicated a lot of time and effort serving in ministry to the church. Thank you God for recognizing how good we are, and what we have done, and choosing us because of that.
It’s pretty easy to think this way, isn’t it?
But when we look carefully at whom God has chosen over the course of our salvation history, it is never someone who is worthy of choice. As a matter of fact, with the exception of Mary, God chooses those who by human standards are failures. Who was Abraham to be chosen to father nations, an insignificant Aremean nomad, eighty years old and childless? Moses was a murder, a fugitive from justice with a speech impediment to boot. The prophets continually remind Israel that they are the most unworthy of nations. David was the youngest and smallest of his family, and he turned into quite the adulterer and murderer. Peter was a coward and a hothead. Paul was at least an accessory to murder, holding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death.
God’s choice is pure gift, a gift that is given not as a reward for right behavior, but a gift that is given so that the chosen might be transformed. Even Mary acknowledges her unworthiness in her response to being chosen; she acknowledges whose action this is: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. All generations will call me blessed because the Almighty has done great things to me, and holy is God's name.”
We are chosen, not because we do things right, as the Pharisee brags, but so that we can be transformed by God’s choosing us. God chooses us so that we will be transformed into people who are in love with God, and so show others what a wonderful thing it is to be loved by God. Religion is not about doing things right at all, but it is about being transformed by God’s love into the incarnation of God’s love. As I have gotten older I have started to realize that the ones who are most likely to be transformed by a relationship are those who have failed, or have suffered. Those who do everything right seldom see a need beyond themselves.
As any of you know who are married, or have children, or have parents, to be transformed by love, you must submit yourself wholeheartedly to that relationship. You must die to yourself so that love can transform you to something better. Rose needed to die to her newly emergent self-reliant self so that she could learn how to truly be self-reliant.
When Jesus says that the tax collector’s prayer is the better one he is pointing out that the tax collector is undergoing a transformation while the Pharisee is patting himself on the back for doing the right things. We always hear the Pharisees in conflict with Jesus so we tend to think of them as the bad guys. But in Jesus’ time and place, they were the ones who were trying to get the Jews to live out their chosen-ness in their day-to-day life, not just at the temple. And the things the Pharisee brags about are good things. But he doesn’t get it. He still thinks it is his doing. He is far from being open to transformation and no one sees God’s love in him.
The assumption we can make about the tax collector is that he is greedy and dishonest. But somehow in the midst of his brokenness he has realized that only God has the power to save him. And in that very realization he has started to be transformed.
In a few minutes, we will all pray the tax collector’s prayer, won’t we? “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” None of us is worthy, no matter how many commandments we keep, or how many Masses we go to, no matter how many rosaries we say. No one is ever worthy of the gift of love. But we can be transformed by it. And we say that prayer with hope and confidence, knowing that God has said that Word that will heal our souls. (pointing to Jesus on the crucifix), the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, and died for us so that we could hear it loud and clear. He has chosen us by name in baptism. And by coming forward to communion with that prayer in our hearts as well as on our lips, we start to be transformed into the Body of Christ, the love of God incarnate. And that is the kind of religion this world needs.