The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, a parable Jesus addresses “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”

When we hear this parable, we tend to be critical of the prayer of the Pharisee.  But consider a different perspective, this by Amy-Jill Levine.  She write

First, the Pharisee thanks God for his state and thus shows his dependence.  As for being an autonomous agent of moral virtue, Pharisees did believe in a combination of fate and free will.  To some extent, his moral stance is of his own doing; he resisted temptation; he chose to follow Torah.  At least the first part of the prayer is perfectly fine, for it is another way of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

As I read that, I thought, that is no different from how we approach things: we are each given gifts, but we have a choice how to use them.  We are given law by God, but it is up to us to follow that law or not.  We are beings constantly called by God, but we do have free will.

Levine admits that the prayer if the Pharisee (“I am not like this tax collector…”) does set up distinctions, but she suggests those distinctions are not about self-importance, but about gratitude.  “It is God who provided the supplicant with the opportunity to study rather than have to work to earn money.  It is God who allows the supplicant to see what is truly important.”

You may not agree with Levine’s interpretation, but what I find helpful in reading her is the reminder that there is more than one way to read parables, and we need to think hard before jumping to easy conclusions about them.


Lenten Practices

Lent is marching on!  How are you doing with your various resolutions regarding the Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer?

I had a conversation with a friend recently about the value of fasting or giving up certain foods for Lent.  I’m not sure God benefits much if I give up desserts for Lent, although I surely benefit from taking a few pounds off.

But I do think there are ways to make fasting more meaningful.  How about:

  • Fasting from eating alone, and instead sharing a meal with a friend.
  • Fasting by skipping a meal and donating the cost of that meal to someone in need.

Or, thinking of fasting in terms other than food

  • Fasting from the use of plastics (as I heard recommended by a church in England)
  • Fasting from criticizing those with whom I disagree.


I’m sure you can think of other things.  The question is simply: How do I make fasting more meaningful.  Giving up sugared cereal is great for kids, but surely we can do more than that.


Do I Derive Pleasure from the Death of the Wicked

Dr. Paul Wojda, Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, authored today’s Lenten Reflection for the University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality’s Seasonal reflections.  Prompted by today’s first Mass reading from the Book of Ezekiel (18:21-28), it ought to make us a bit uncomfortable about how we respond to those we villify.  Rather than summarize it, I include it in full for your reflection.

“Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?”

Charles Dickens may well have had these lines from Ezekiel in mind when he was writing his now famous conversion narrative, A Christmas Carol (1843). At the final and decisive visit of the third spirit (“The Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come”), the misanthropic Scrooge is given a vision of his own death, or rather a vision of some reactions to his death, none of them cheering. Three businessmen bemusedly remark that Scrooge’s funeral will certainly not be very well attended. Indeed, one of them only plans on going if a meal will be served. Scrooge’s own housekeeper is greedily pawning, to a sketchy character named “Old Joe,” the household goods she lifted. And a poor couple on the miser’s hook rejoice: they will now have a bit more time to repay their debt.

We all know what happens next. But let’s be honest, would any of us have shed a tear if, instead of his remarkable turnabout and subsequent generosity, especially where Tiny Tim is concerned, old Ebeneezer died in his sleep that Christmas Eve?

I suspect not. I know I wouldn’t have. On the contrary, wouldn’t we, don’t we, shouldn’t we actually rejoice? Serves him right. Bad guy gets it in the end. What goes around comes around. Just deserts. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Praise the Lord. Right? Wrong.

If Dickens’ classic story is a morality tale, then it challenges us to take the measure, not so much of Scrooge’s mercy, but of our own. How narrow and shriveled are ourhearts? If we rejoice that Scrooge found new life–that what he thought was a fateful choice to reject love was in fact not irrevocable–then should we not also lament the possibility that he might have missed the opportunity?

Should we not likewise lament our own failures to grasp new life, resurrection, when it extends its hands to us? By all means, let us lament together. That is Lent. Let us begin where Jesus himself proposes in today’s Gospel: by disowning the pleasures we take in our many angers, grudges, and resentments.

As Marley might say, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

You can read all of the Lenten Reflections here.

“Our” Father

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus gives his disciples a lesson in prayer.  After telling them not to “babble like the pagans,” he teaches them the prayer we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer.

Every time we go to Mass, and, for many of us, at other times a well, we recite this prayer that Jesus taught us.  It is a prayer we could spend a lifetime meditating on.  Teresa of Avila used to tell her sisters they should recite it prayerfully every day, meditating on each line of the prayer.

Consider just the opening two lines of that prayer: “Our Father”

When we say those words – Our Father – we are acknowledging a particular relationship not only with God but with each other.  Yes, Jesus taught us that God is Father, and for many of us that is a powerful image – the image of God as Father.  And I think we tend to focus on that part of the first line of the prayer, on what it says about our relationship with God.

But we don’t say simply Father, or Dear Father, or My Father.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father.”  And by those words we acknowledge not only a filial relationship with God, but a relationship with each other.  We acknowledge that we are brother and sister.  We acknowledge that we stand as part of a family with each other – as part of a loving and united community with God.

I was so powerfully struck by this reality one morning when I was ending a prayer period with this prayer that I couldn’t even get past the first line.  I stopped dead in my tracks with the enormity of what I was praying.

Imagine a world in which we all took the opening phrase of the Lord’s Prayer seriously!

The Criteria For Judgment

The University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality posts daily reflections during Lent.  I authored today’s reflection, focusing on today’s Gospel from Matthew.  Here is what I wrote:

Today’s Gospel is the familiar passage from Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus explains to his followers the basis upon which the Son of Man will separate those who stand before him on the day of judgment.  The explanation given to those he will welcome into his kingdom is that when he was hunger they fed him; thirsty, they gave him something to drink; a stranger, they welcomed him; naked, they gave him clothing; sick, they took care of him; in prison, they visited him.  Of course, his hearers remember no such good deeds done for Christ, prompting his further explanation: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The theologian Michael Himes makes much of this passage, writing

“the criterion of judgment has nothing to do with any explicitly religious action.  The criterion is not whether we were baptized, or prayed, or read Scripture, or received the Eucharist, or believed the correct doctrines, or belonged to the church.  Not one of these – however important they may be – is raised as the principle of judgment.  Only one criterion is given: Did you love your brothers and sister?”

Reflecting on this Gospel passage invites us to reflect on the question: Do we see the face of Christ when we look at our brothers and sisters?  And I don’t mean the brothers and sisters who look like us.  Do we see the face of Christ….

…in the prisoner on death row

…in the homeless beggar on the street

…in those addicted to drugs or alcohol

…in those whose politics we find objectionable

…in those who don’t’ share our religious beliefs

…in those whose sexual orientation we don’t understand.

We want to be able to see the face of Christ in every single person we encounter because He is right there in every single person, however misleadingly he is disguised by characteristics that make him look different from us.  And seeing others as Christ, we want to respond to them in love and compassion, doing what we can to meet their needs.

Lent offers us a wonderful opportunity to practice that recognition and response.

Note: You can read all of the posted reflections here.

Prayer for Our Leaders

I got an e-mail from my friend Gerry this morning, reminding me of this wonderful prayer “For One Who Holds Power” by John O’Donohue.  It is a good prayer for our times.

May the gift of leadership awaken in you as a vocation,
Keep you mindful of the providence that calls you to

As high over the mountains the eagle spreads its wings,
May your perspective be larger than the view from the foothills.

When the way is flat and dull in times of gray endurance,
May your imagination continue to evoke horizons.

When thirst burns in times of drought,
May you be blessed to find the wells.

May you have the wisdom to read time clearly
And know when the seed of   change will flourish.

In your heart may there be a sanctuary
For the stillness where clarity is born.

May your work be infused with passion and creativity
And have the wisdom to balance compassion and challenge.

May your soul find the graciousness
To rise above the fester of small mediocrities.

May your power never become a shell
Wherein your heart would silently atrophy.

May you welcome your own vulnerability
As the ground where healing and truth join.

May integrity of soul be your first ideal.
The source that will guide and bless your work.

Walking With Jesus During Lent

Tonight was the opening session of the Lenten Ignatian Retreat at St. Thomas More.  After this initial large group meeting, small retreat groups will meet weekly, and participants will pray each day with materials we provide to them that are based on Weeks 2 and 3 of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

I gave the opening talk this evening to introduce the retreat.  I spoke first about a central characteristic of Ignatian Spirituality – one that underlies the approach of the Spiritual Exercises – and that is, the importance of a personal encounter with Jesus.  I then offered a general sense of the overall flow of the retreat, highlighting in particular the idea of our call to labor with Christ on behalf of building God’s kingdom.

You can access a recording of the session here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for just under 30:00 minutes.)