The biography of St. Paul formed an important part of his gospel preaching. In his conversion, he experienced the transforming power of grace as he moved from persecutor to prophet. In his own suffering of persecution, hardship, and imprisonment, his summons to live for Christ and by Christ found compelling expression.
The passage from the second letter to Timothy draws upon Paul’s history. Looking back over service, Paul speaks heartbreaking words that capture the depth of his suffering and his self-abandonment to the Lord. As a pious Jew, well versed in the scriptures, Paul lived the words of the Psalm response: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” The lowly, the broken-hearted, those crushed in spirit can all hope in the redeeming power of God. Paul knows that his life and his contribution rest upon the power of the One who delivered him from opposition and even from himself – the One who rescued him “from the lion’s mouth.” Paul’s embrace of this truth is part witness to God’s grace in his life and part legacy to be shared with the young Timothy whose race is still being run.
The reading from Sirach serves as commentary on the traditional scriptural emphasis on God’s providential care of the lowly. In the ancient world, people relied on family links for protection and prosperity. The prophets continuously reminded Israel that God had a special interest in those who lacked those resources. The landless, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner – all these defenseless and vulnerable people could count on the Lord to take them as His own. Even God’s special relationship with Israel is presented at times in this light – after all, Israel was a small and vulnerable people in the midst of greedy and powerful neighbors.
Sirach’s particular contribution to the question is his assertion that God’s favoritism is not really favoritism but justice. Sirach is well aware that this world rarely gives justice to those who do not have the power or resources to demand it. In every human society, ancient or modern, those with power and wealth will defend and grow their wealth at the expense of others. So God’s intervention does not involve God choosing favorites, rather it restores the balance of justice to those who do not have worldly recourse.
The gospel parable about the respective prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector draws upon these Old Testament traditions. The parable follows last week’s parable about the persistent widow and continues that parable’s reflection upon the nature of prayer. In this case, the emphasis is upon the attitude of prayer. The contrast between the Pharisee and tax collector concerns the same reality on display in the beautiful words of Paul: authentic prayer acknowledges dependence upon God. The Pharisee in this instance wishes to inform God of his accomplishments and look down upon the spiritually lowly. The tax collector seeks no more than mercy and it is his prayer that will, in the words of Sirach, “pierce the clouds.”
The closing lines of the parable about the humbling of the exalted and the exalting of the humble tell us that the attitude in question is not limited to prayer. It is not a matter of finding a clever formula of words that express humility, but the living of a life dependent upon, and trusting in, God. This parable is followed by Jesus’ assertion that the kingdom belongs to the little ones. The tax collector acknowledges his lowliness and his need, the Pharisee appears already satisfied.
Some commentators criticize the Church for its single-minded devotion to the well-being of human life in the womb. They point out that the scriptures call upon believers to seek justice and provide assistance to those who suffer poverty, want, illness, or oppression. They ask why concerns about abortion should take precedence over these other needs. The answer to their questions lies in passages like the ones we hear this weekend. It is true that many people suffer and there are many pressing needs. To be pro-life is not to forget that larger reality, but those who speak for the unborn know that this society has made of the child in the womb the poorest, most vulnerable, and most oppressed person in the land. It is the very helplessness and voicelessness of these children and their mothers that make the issue of justice for them so grave. By the hundreds of thousands they are discarded so that we may be “free” of the demands that come with their birth. Indeed, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” We might be deaf to their cries, but the Lord hears…