“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”
― St. Augustine
In August 2013, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, conducted one of the earliest interviews of Pope Francis after he was elected as Pope. The very first question Spadaro asked Pope Francis was,
“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (Pope Francis’ real name)
After a few seconds of silence, Pope Francis answered,
“I do not know what might be the most fitting description …. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
This humble admission of being a sinner is nothing new for Pope Francis. In his general audience at St Peter’s Square on 13 April, 2016, just a month after his election as pope, Pope Francis describes the church as not a
“a community of perfect people, but disciples on a path who follow the Lord because they recognise themselves as sinners and in need of his forgiveness,”
In the same interview with Spadaro, Pope Francis describes what the church needs be today. The church today demands that it need not be a magnificent building secure on itself but a field hospital after a battle.
“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.
In the gospel of today’s 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus told a parable about two people who prayed in the temple in Jerusalem, one was a religious person and the other a notorious sinner. In an unexpected twist of fate, the sinner went home from the temple justified rather than the religious person:
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus’ verdict favoring the tax collector must have been outrageous to his hearers. Jesus did not mean, however, 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.
The Pharisee was quite right in performing his religious and moral duties. He was not like other people—extortioners, unjust, adulterers. He practiced strict observances of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and tithing. 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.”
But being “justified” means being in right relationship with God, faithful to the covenant relationships. Luke says pointedly that Jesus addressed this parable to those “who trusted in themselves” that they were righteous (or justified). In other words, the target of the story is those who foolishly thought their righteousness was based on their own action rather than the grace of God. They placed their faith more in themselves than in God, thereby undermining the foundation of their covenant connections with God and the community.
The greatest enemy of religious belief today are not the atheists or agnostics but self-righteous people from within a certain religion or church. They give religion or church a bad name. They repel others from the church, especially those who are struggling to rectify their relationship with God and others, because they impose their moral compass which they think is above all others.
On the other hand, one cannot justify the statement, “Why go to church if the church are full of hypocrites and self-righteous people, anyway.” The reason we go to church is not because we are perfect but because we want to seek God’s mercy out of our imperfections.
Jesus’ parable today, as every parable, is Jesus’ way of teaching us about divine reversal. God’s ways and values are, more often than not, a reversal of the ways and values of the world. This is true in prayer, God hears not the rich and sufficient in themselves but the poor and the oppressed, as the first reading today from the book of Sirach says:
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint …
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.
In prayer, we can discover in our failures and sinfulness, examples of divine reversals, a better plan, a more rewarding venture. What may initially look as a set-back can be an opportunity for course correction. Thus, Jesus parable today, as every parable, is an open-ended story. We’re supposed to end the parable in our own lives and apply what this parable means to us and make the changes that it demand from our lives today.