Pursuit of eternal life requires gratitude, complete trust in mercy of God

Tim Irwin

By Tim Irwin

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time/Oct. 23

Sirach 35:12-14,16-18; Psalm 34:2-3,17-18,19,23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

The pursuit of tangible blessings like wealth, power and honor animate contemporary American culture, and the readings for the Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary time suggest that they were just as popular during biblical times. In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus recounts a parable contrasting the desire for tangible blessings with the pursuit of the intangible happiness of eternal life.

A Pharisee goes to Temple to pray. In the Jewish culture of first century Judea, he stood atop the social and religious hierarchy. His life revolved around a degree of wealth, power, and honor unknown to the great masses of Jews struggling to survive in a land burdened by an occupation army and the heavy taxation that it brought. A tax collector also entered the Temple. He stood at the bottom of the religious and social hierarchy. Though Jewish, he served the Romans by collecting the monies needed to finance the occupation. Presumed corrupt, he was the guy everybody loved to hate.

The Pharisee prayed, “‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, and 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.’” Jesus concludes the parable saying, “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.”

In the first reading from the Book of Sirach, we learn why the tax collector was justified. “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.”

The humility so obvious in the tax collector and so absent in the Pharisee illustrates that the humble see past wealth, power, and honor in pursuit of eternal life.

RUNNING THE GOOD RACE

Prayer and the path to eternal life isn’t all beer and Skittles as the reading from Second Timothy suggests. St. Paul, near the end of his life, reminds us where the pursuit of eternal life might lead. “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” It’s an alarming thought that one might be poured out like a libation. Apparently, those closest to Paul felt that way as none of them stood with him during his first defense. Paul prays, “May it not be held against them!”

We also want wealth, power and honor and why not? They offer us tangible goods. May it not be held against us. Apparently it won’t be held against us at least until we become like the Pharisee and conclude that wealth, power, and honor are preferable to eternal life.

This Sunday at Holy Mass may we stand before the Lord like the tax collector with every reason in the world to see within ourselves a radical lack of holiness. Recall the tax collector’s plea: “Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Let us celebrate the Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time first thanking God for whatever blessings of wealth, power, and honor we have received, and then seeking his mercy so that like Paul we might strive to run the good race and fight the good fight in the pursuit of the intangible blessing of eternal life.

Tim Irwin teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria.

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