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30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle C)

Readings:
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalm 34:1-2, 16-18, 22
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: God Welcomes the Prayers of the Humble

In the First Reading, the inspired writer of the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) writes that God has no favorites, but He is especially open to the cries of the oppressed and the prayers of the lowly.  Their humble prayers pierce the clouds to reach God who responds with compassion, mercy and justice (Sir 35:12-13, 17-18).

In today's Psalm Reading, the psalmist affirms that when the just and broken-hearted cry out, the LORD hears them (Ps 35:16-19).  He reminds us that Yahweh is the God of justice who will not allow evildoers to go unpunished for oppressing the righteous and the weak.  It is repentance and humility before the God that identifies the just servant; it is the humble servant Yahweh justifies and redeems. 

St. Paul exemplifies the humble and just servant of God in the Second Reading.  St. Paul, imprisoned in Rome and facing martyrdom, writes to St. Timothy that his hope and trust is in the Lord.  He is the humble servant God promises to justify and redeem in the Psalm:The LORD redeems the lives of his servants; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him (Ps 35:22).

The Gospel reading reflects the message of today's Psalm Reading in Jesus' Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Two men profess that they are God's servants: one man is a Pharisee who sees himself as upright but does not demonstrate humility in his prayers.  The other man is a tax collector who repents his sins, pleads for mercy, and lays his life before God in complete humility.  Jesus tells the parable to contrast the prayers of humble and contrite sinners with the prayers of the smug and self-righteous. 

Sacred Scripture consistently teaches us that it is the humble sinner who is justified in his confession and receives God's mercy and forgiveness.  St. Peter writes, God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble ... So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.  Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you (1 Pt 5:6-7).

The First Reading Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18 ~ God Hears the Cry of the Suffering
12 The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.  13 Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.  14 The LORD is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.  [...] 16 He who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens.  17 The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, 18 nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, 18 and the LORD will not delay.

In this passage, Ben Sirach recalls some of God's attributes.  He is a just judge who has no favorites.  However, He is especially open to the petitions of the oppressed and the suffering, like the orphans and the widows (verses 13-14), and to the humble person who serves Him (verses 16-17).  The petitions of the humble ever go unheard until God has rendered them justice, either in this life or the next (verse 18).  

Jesus reflected the same promises of mercy and compassion for the poor, the suffering and the humble in His ministry.  He promised that divine justice was awaiting them, perhaps not in this life but in the eternal kingdom when justice will be the reward of those denied justice in their temporal lives.  See Jesus' promise of justice to the poor in Luke 6:20-26 and also the divine attributes God revealed to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7.

Responsorial Psalm 34:1-2, 16-18, 22 ~ Praise the LORD who delivers the Humble

The response is: "The Lord hears the cry of the poor."

1 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.  2 Let my soul glory in the LORD; the lowly will hear me and be glad.
Response:
16 The LORD confronts the evildoers, to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.  17 When the just cry out, the LORD hears them and from all their distress he rescues them.
Response:
18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.  22 The LORD redeems the lives of his servants; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.
Response:

The previous Psalm invited the righteous servants (plural) of God to praise Him (see Ps 33:1), but this psalm is a song of praise for the individual servant (singular).  Psalm 34 is an invitation to praise God for His goodness in the deliverance and refuge He provides for His humble servant.  It is one of the alphabetical psalms in the Hebrew text in which the verse order is laid out in an alphabetical format with each verse assigned a consecutive letter in the Hebrew alphabet.  In the first two verses, God's servant expresses his continual praise for God.  It is praise that refreshes the soul of the servant and makes happy the oppressed and humble to hear the testimony of the glory of God from the mouth of His servant. 

It is to the humble that the servant addresses verses 16-18.  The servant reminds the humble that Yahweh is the God of justice who will not allow evildoers to go unpunished for oppressing the righteous and the weak.  The definition of a righteous servant does not depend only on upright conduct (see verses 13-14 that are not in our reading).  What identifies the just servant is his repentance and humility before the God.  The humble servant is the kind of person Yahweh justifies and redeems (verse 22).  The message of this psalm is reflected in the Gospel reading when Jesus tells a parable about two men who present themselves as God's servants.  One is a man who sees himself as "upright" but does not demonstrate humility in his prayers, and the other is a lowly sinner who repents his sins, pleads for mercy, and lays his life before God in complete humility.

The Second Reading 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 ~ St. Paul, the Image of the Humble Servant
6 I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.  7 I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  8 From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance. [...] 16 At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.  May it not be held against them!  17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.  And I was rescued from the lion's mouth.  18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.  To him be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

St. Paul is the true image of God's humble servant.  In St. Paul's second letter to St. Timothy, he is preparing himself for martyrdom, speaking of his death as his "departure" from this life.  Paul compares his imminent death to a libation offered to God.  His language is reminiscent of the blood of the sacrificial victim that was poured out as a libation at God's holy altar in the Old Covenant sacrifices (i.e. Ex 29:12; Lev 3:2, 8, 13, 4:7, 18, 25, 30, etc.).  Paul views his martyrdom as his sacrificial gift to the Lord.  The martyrdom of St. Paul, the righteous servant, also recalls the blood of Abel that soaked the earth and was, in effect, a libation that cried out to God to deliver justice (Gen 4:10). 

In the Letter to the Hebrews, speaking of the necessity of Jesus' perfect blood sacrifice to inaugurate the New Covenant, Paul reminded his audience that under the Old Covenant, ... according to the Law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Heb 9:22).  Now, in death, it is Paul's life's blood that is going to be offered in sacrifice to God just as Christ's blood was offered as a sacrifice on the altar of the Cross.  Paul used the same language in his letter to the Philippians when he wrote: But, even if I am poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with all of you (Phil 2:17).

Bravely and humbly confronting the reality of what is ahead of him, St. Paul also looks to his past (verses 7-8), using metaphors from sporting events that he so favors and has used in other letters (i.e. 1 Cor 9:24-27; 1 Tim 6:12; Heb 10:32; 12:1, 12).  The literal translation of verse 7 is: I have fought the good fight.  The Greek word agon ("fight") could refer to any physical contest including hand to hand combat in the gladiatorial games, boxing or wrestling.  It was an expression that was also used in Hellenistic literature to symbolically refer to the moral struggles of life, as it is St. Paul's allusion in this verse.  Paul then says I have finished the race, meaning that he has accepted his coming martyrdom as God's will for his life.  Paul testifies that he has remained true to the mission Jesus gave him to carry the Gospel of salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16; 23:11; 26:17-18).  Making another allusion to sporting events where the victor wins a crown of laurel leaves, Paul says that God, the "just judge," will award him, according to his faithful service, with the "crown of righteousness" that is eternal life (see Jam 1:12; 1 Pt 5:4; Rev 2:10; 3:11).  It is the same way God will reward all His faithful servants who await the return of Jesus Christ (verse 8).

2 Tim 4:16-18 ~  At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.  May it not be held against them!  17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.  And I was rescued from the lion's mouth.  18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.  To him be glory forever and ever.  Amen.
Recalling the first imprisonment in Rome and his first trial (60-62 AD; Acts 28:16, 30-31), Paul remembers how no one appeared as a witness in his defense.  He remembers how alone he was except for the Lord Jesus who comforted him in his sense of abandonment and encouraged him to continue to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.  At that time he taught the Church from his house arrest in Rome until he was rescued from the lion's mouth, which Paul uses either literally or figuratively or both.  It was common in Rome for wild beasts to kill condemned prisoners as entertainment in the Coliseum.   But now, in his second imprisonment in Rome, Paul can expect no acquittal and no release except in death and entrance into God's "heavenly kingdom."

The Gospel of Luke 18:9-14 ~ The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.  10 Two people went up to the Temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.  11 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.  12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'  13 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.'  14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Jesus addressed this parable to the Pharisees: to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.  The Pharisees were a group of influential Jews who were rigidly observant of the commands and prohibitions of the Law of Moses (Acts 26:5).  They, therefore, considered their works of the Law as making them "righteous" before God and everyone else a despised sinner.  In Matthew 23:1-33, Jesus accused them of using their legalistic and hypocritical application of the Law to advance their own status and to make the Law of Moses an unreasonable burden for the people.

This parable offers the contrasts between a boasting Pharisee and a repentant tax collector.  The Pharisee is meticulous about the external fulfillment of the Law, and his pride makes him self-centered and blind to his sins.  However, the tax collector, who is too ashamed to even raise his head, humbly acknowledges both his sins and his need for God's grace and mercy.  Notice how many times the Pharisee used the pronoun "I" in Jesus' parable.  He is focused on himself and not on his relationship with God.  Also, notice in verse 13 how the tax collector beats his breast in sorrow as he confesses his sins (as we also beat our breasts in the Penitential Rite in the Mass).  At the end of the parable, Jesus says the tax collector was justified (made right/just with God), receiving God's mercy and forgiveness for his sins, while the Pharisee is not justified.  God judges hearts and not words.  The Pharisee was not asking God's forgiveness for his sins; he was only boasting of his good works and despising the tax collector.  He was blind to his sins, and so his sins remained.  The tax collector abandoned himself to both God's judgment and God's mercy and therefore, through his humble confession of his sins, was forgiven and made "just" in the sight of God.

Saints Peter and James wrote about the virtue of humility in 1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6 in which they both quoted from Proverbs 3:34 LXX. St. Peter wrote that we must clothe ourselves with humility in our dealings with one another and with God because (quoting Proverbs 3:34) God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.  Then St. Peter continued: So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.  Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you (1 Pt 5:6-7).

Humility is one of the hallmarks of repentance and opens a channel to God's divine grace.  We should pray as David prayed after Nathan the prophet confronted David concerning his affair with Bathsheba: Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense.  Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me ... True I was born guilty, a sinner, even as my mother conceived me. Still you insist on sincerity of heart; in my inmost being teach me wisdom.  Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure, wash me, make me whiter than snow... Lord, open my lips; my mouth will proclaim your praise.  For you do not desire sacrifice; a burnt offering you would not accept.  My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart (Ps 51:3-5, 7-9, 17-19).  St. Ambrose wrote: The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.  Many are the difficulties of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all [quoting Ps 34:18-19].  If we strive to observe what he commands, he will not delay in giving us what he has promised (Commentaries on Philippians, 4).

Catechism References:
2 Timothy 4 (CCC 2015)
Luke 18:9-14 (2559, 2613); 18:9 (CCC 588); 18:13 (CCC 2631, 2667, 2839)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013; revised 2016