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St Luke, the brilliant storyteller

(Sir 35.12-14,16-18; 2 Tm 4.6-8,16-18; Lk 18.9-14)

Once again, the brilliance of St Luke as a storyteller shines out in his brief parable. For us reading it now, it looks like a classic Western shootout, goodie v baddie. We exult in the victory of the underdog. For Jesus’ original hearers it would have been quite different. They would have been duly impressed by the pharisee’s piety (fasting i.e not eating or drinking anything before sundown, full tithing i.e. a tenth of all his income plus the dues of others he knew who fell short). On the other hand he was calling on the general contempt for tax collectors as a focus of hatred for the Roman overlords with their voracious tax system.

So when the tax collector goes home in God’s favour and forgiveness, listeners would have been stunned. How could this be? It all goes back to his humble plea, humble being the key word. The pharisee’s prayer is rooted in a glowing portrait of himself, and pride in his pious achievements. His smugness and complacency show forth in his contemptuous summing up of the tax collector’s life. On the other hand, the tax collector does not attempt to justify himself but leans totally on the mercy of God.

Because his prayer is rooted in God’s compassion, he is like a tree in rich soil, where God’s grace can make him to flourish, as does plentiful rain and abundant sunlight for struggling plants.

For us the lesson is clear. Whatever holiness or virtue we can claim, it is purely gift. Ultimately we carry responsibility for our constant failings; it is God’s graciousness and mercy that sustain us and allow us to bloom and flourish.

Source: 30th Sunday year C

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