A New View

Posted in christian, Christianity, ethics, Faith, forgiveness, homily, inspirational, politics, religion, scripture, Spirit, Word by Rev. Martha on October 20, 2016

30th Sunday 10-23-16 yr c Sirach 35: 12-18; Ps 34; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14


Every once in a while, we’re given the chance to look at something in a different way. For example, you might go on a ride down a familiar road, but this time someone else is driving, and you see a house or a business or a tree you don’t remember ever seeing before.

Sometimes this happens with Bible stories. But this new awareness is not always pleasant.  Take, for instance, the Pharisee in today’s Gospel.  Reading the Gospel of Luke, it’s hard not to develop an attitude about Pharisees.  In chapter 5, when Jesus heals a paralytic, the Pharisees begin a controversy about forgiveness of sins, laws about fasting, observance of the Sabbath, and Jesus’ habit of eating with “sinners” and tax collectors. In chapter 7, the Pharisees refuse to let John baptize them.  In chapter 11 Jesus harshly criticizes the Pharisees for their attention to minor details of the Jewish laws, yet failure to love of God.  In chapter 12, Jesus says plainly, “Beware of the leaven, that is, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees”.

Yet in Chapter 13, the Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him that Herod wants to kill him. Maybe they weren’t all bad.  What was the common view of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time?  And what were their prayers like?

Well, there were many devout and sincere Pharisees, spending their days studying and discussing the laws of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. They lived lives dedicated to careful and meticulous observance of those laws.  Pharisees could routinely quote entire books by memory. It’s hard not to admire their dedication; they seemed to love God.  Most Jews who went to worship in the temple stood and said their prayers aloud – it was the custom, and not a way this particular Pharisee might show off.  But Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor as yourself) somehow was set aside.  His prayer seems to follow the ancient commandments; still, the love commandment is missing.

One of best books I’ve read about the Parables of Jesus says that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were highly respected among most Jews, and were considered righteous. And the Pharisee in this passage far exceeded any of the laws for fasting or tithing.  To the people listening to Jesus, this Pharisee would have been the hero of the story, far better than any tax collector.

Tax collectors, of course, are rarely heroes. But in 33 A.D., the view of a tax collector was very negative.  They were collaborators with the Romans, they enforced an extremely heavy tax burden on the people, they were notorious for dishonesty and extortion, and were classified with murderers and traitors.  At one point they were not allowed even to be witnesses in court.  Some people have suggested that a tax collector wouldn’t have been allowed in the temple, but that is an exaggeration.  But everyone understood why the tax collector would not even raise his eyes to heaven, for failure to rise your eyes was a sign of nearly unpardonable guilt and shame in many cultures.  The tax collector would be, clearly, the bad guy to those listening to Jesus; and that would be supported by his apparent estimation of himself.

Imagine then, the how stunned people were when Jesus declared the Tax collector the one who was justified. Knowing this helps us to better understand the reading.  We need to look again at why Jesus told this parable and why Luke included it in his Gospel.  And of course, we need to consider what this might have to do with us, and not just that the Pharisee sounds like an empty braggart to our ears.

The opening verse of the reading is a good place to start. “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Up front we know this isn’t going to be warm and fuzzy, my friends.  Jesus identifies two problems.  One is when we choose to be judge of our own goodness.  Ah, that is so easy.  It’s risk free – there is no chance that anyone will bring up any of my faults.  We always have a reason why we’re right when we judge ourselves.  It puffs up our ego, no painful change or correction is required.  We feel powerful and in charge, able to be faultless without anyone else’s help.

Of course, doing this robs us of any opportunity to see any other point of view, or grow in faith or in relationship to God or our fellow human beings – in fact, it isolates us and stunts our growth. Which leads to the second problem – when I think my self-perceived goodness makes me inherently better than other people, and above the need for God’s forgiveness.  If that is the case, then I have broken both the commandments to love God and to love my neighbor as myself.  Breaking both of them puts us a bad place indeed.

What is it like when guilt and shame bursts into our self-assessment? A friend sent me a link to a site on the internet that will tell you where you rank, both by income or assets, in the world’s wealth. With my little monthly pension and social security, I am in the top 5% of the world’s wealthiest people!!  It ruined my day to realize the bottom 5% is dying from preventable disease and starvation.  I went from what I perceived as a position of grace to feeling like a self-centered miser complicit in the world’s poverty.   My privileged status is largely an accident of birth.  It gave me much more compassion for the tax collector, and reason to relate to his prayer.

This is why Luke included this parable- to warn us, to ruin our day, to stun us, to shake us up. He makes us take a second look at our self-assessment.  Do we really follow Jesus or follow our own path, making life as we live it seem much more righteous than it really is?  Are we much more dependent on a merciful God than we’d like to think?  Luke gives us a chance to see ourselves in a different way, and Luke provides the assurance that Our Creator wants to grant us new sight, to forgive our false pride, and to have us part of The Kingdom of God.  Our God is the God of second chances.


Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, Year A 2013-14

Posted in christian, Christianity, church events, ecclesiology, ethics, inspirational, religion by Fr. Ron Stephens on January 5, 2014

Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, Year A  2013-14

[Bishop Ron’s complete homilies for the last Year A are published in a book entitled “Teaching the Church Year”, available as an ebook at]

Poetry is not too popular today.  I think this is because poetry is compressed language, full of double meanings, metaphors and other figures of speech which take time to decipher. One must meditate over poetry, and people today don’t seem to have the time to do that. The result is ‘tweeting’ which is short and to the point, and is seldom metaphoric or symbolic but simply says what it means.

I think this is why we have so much more trouble listening to the Hebrew Testament prophetic readings which are so heavy in meaning, strong in imagery, foreign in culture and often, seemingly mysterious in meaning and reference. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a good example, in fact.

“Thus says the Lord: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold…” (Is 42:1) So starts the reading today. Who is this servant? The servant is never named. Hebrew scholars think it may refer to Israel the nation. Others argue that it is a king being predicted. With other things Isaiah has written, many call this the “suffering servant”. It all seems very vague. The Catholic Church has always seen this “servant”, however, as a prophecy of Jesus, and by identifying the ‘servant’ in this way, we can read into this passage a great deal, and make a lot of sense out of it. It has been chosen on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord because it rightly prophesies of this servant who is a teacher and has the spirit of God, who is gentle, who is faithful and just, who doesn’t give up and who ‘is’ a covenant for the people. Does sound a lot like the life of Jesus, doesn’t it!  It even goes on to say that he will be a light to the nations, again opening up the Hebrew religion to all nations, and that he will give sight tot he blind and let prisoner’s free. The description of the prisoners given, sitting in darkness could be a reference to Jesus, immediately after his death,  opening up heaven to all those imprisoned in the Old Covenant.

The poetic prophecies of Isaiah mean so much more when we have something or someone to apply them to. When we read them with this new insight, as the Church does, their meaning becomes so much clearer, and yet still retains the beautiful poetry and symbolism – like light versus darkness, not snuffing out candlewicks, not breaking reeds, and so on.

The rest of the readings today all use the images of water and baptism as this is the feast we are celebrating. The Psalm begins this imagery with the Lord’s voice stirring the waters – the waters of creation, and God as Lord enthroned above the waters. In the Acts of the Apostles, our second reading, St. Peter is preaching and his theme seems to be that Jesus is the Lord of all – that any person of any nation is acceptable to God. He explains that this all began after John the Baptist’s announcement of God’s anointing of Jesus, and being “with” Jesus.

When we move to the Gospel we jump into Matthew’s description of the actual scene of the baptism. We can explain , first of all, that Matthew seems to be carefully editing the same story told by St. Mark. The problem was a theological one. If John were baptizing for the repentance of sins, does that mean that Jesus was a sinner that needed baptism as well. Mark’s Gospel does not answer that question, so Matthew , a few years later, tries to.  In Matthew’s version, John does not want to baptize Jesus, doesn’t see the need for it, and in fact, thinks that Jesus should be baptizing him. Jesus reply to John is “Let is be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

This sentence has been studied and debated for many years – but I think I can summarize many opinions by saying that Jesus, as a man, needed to go through the requirements that he wanted every religious man to go through. For example, he didn’t need circumcision, but he was circumcised, he didn’t need to go through the purity rituals when he entered a home, but he did. He wanted to live the life that he thought we should be living. and baptism was one of the things that he wanted us to go through. He wanted to be an example or a role model of what a human being was meant to be.

The result of that Baptism was the sound of the Lord God’s voice telling us that he was well pleased with the way his Son was conducting himself as a man. “This my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17)

What this can mean for us is this week is that we can and should look to the life of Jesus as examples of how to lead the perfect life we are called to live. We are not sinless, like Jesus, but we can aim to live our lives using him as our model. And those things that Isaiah names as descriptive of the suffering servant, the description well-befitting Jesus, can give us types and patterns of behavior that we can strive to emulate. Let me review them again: we must be teachers and healers, bringing God’s message to all; we must be humble servants, putting God’s will before our own; we must be gentle in our dealings with others, non-judgmental and supportive; we must be faithful to God and his Word, we must fight for justice in the world, to do what we can to even the playing field for all people. And from the Gospel today, we must be righteous – that is, we must abide by the just laws of our church and state, living out our lives as men and women to the best of our abilities. This is the summary of a saint, a Jesus, a perfect life. Can we all achieve this? probably not.  Can we all aim for it? Yes!

Think of it as a map with a very clear “way” laid out. It is not poetry, somewhat difficult to understand. We only need to look to Jesus and see what we have to do.

This is why we begin our regular Church year with this feast which lays out the Good News of the path we must follow in life.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Auxiliary Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese

of the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

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