Do you stand apart from or a part of?

GOD’S WORD TODAY - Francis D. Alvarez S.J. - The Philippine Star

In our Gospel today, Jesus tells us, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is not the first time Jesus says this in the Gospel of Luke. Almost two months ago, on Sept. 1, we heard our Lord deliver the same message in Luke 14:11.

The context then was the parable about how we should not presume to occupy the seats of honor or the higher positions at a banquet. In our parable today, this is basically what the Pharisee does. He, as Jesus describes, “takes up his position” and proclaims, “I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” There is a Filipino expression for this: “Pagbubuhat ng sariling bangko.”

The Pharisee’s boast echoes the audacious claim of another character we encountered a month and a half ago on Sept. 15. The older brother in the parable of the prodigal son was also adamant about his own righteousness as he castigated his father, “Look, all these years I served you, and not once did I disobey your orders.” Not once! And the elder son refused to enter the father’s house and join the celebration for his younger brother. Just like the Pharisee who “took up his position” and the people who choose the higher places for themselves at banquets, the older brother separated himself from everyone else.

A thread running through these parables seems to be the theme of standing apart from. Interestingly, this is what the Aramaic root of the word Pharisee means: apart and separated. Could this be why Jesus also had so many disagreements with the Pharisees – because they insisted on standing apart and separating themselves?

Jesus advised us almost two months ago: When we are invited to a banquet, we should go and take the lowest place. When the host comes, he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.”

While this may be a possible outcome, it should not be the reason why we seek the humbler seats. If we choose the lower places only so that we can be called up higher, this would be tantamount to fishing for compliments – like the chef who apologizes that the dish he prepared is not up to par when in reality, he just wants to be praised for his pièce de résistance. In today’s parlance, this would be a “humblebrag.” The point of choosing the lower places is not to be called higher and be set apart, but to simply sit with the people there and be a part of them.

If we go deeper into the Gospel of Luke, we will see that choosing the humbler places is at the heart of Jesus’ mission. His mother is a simple peasant girl from the provincial town of Nazareth. When he is born, the first people invited to visit him are shepherds. He is the Messiah and Lord, but he eats with sinners and tax collectors. Even in death, he is crucified with criminals. Vindicated by his resurrection, he could have rubbed his Apostles’ noses in it and after, thumbed his nose at them. But Jesus is never one to stand apart. He is the one who reaches out to the disheartened disciples on the way to Emmaus. These two disciples could not understand why the Messiah had to suffer. Instead of leaving them, Jesus walks with them further.

The old translation of the first Eucharistic prayer for reconciliation captures this eloquently: “When we were lost and could not find the way to you, you loved us even more.” Jesus is more justified than the Pharisee and the elder son to taunt us and tout his righteousness. Instead, he sings of mercy and invites us to celebrate with him, to become even more a part of him, because if he does not love us, we will never find our way to him.

The Pharisee is not wrong in his fasting and tithing. His error is in separating himself from the rest of humanity. Our being in the right should never be a license to stand apart from but an invitation to reach out even more to everyone else. If we ever find ourselves in the right, it is not just because of our own efforts; it is also because God has – as the tax collector prayed – been merciful to us sinners. So in turn, we show mercy to other sinners.

A Jesuit who was assigned to work in the New Bilibid Prison was once asked, “Why do you serve these convicts? They are criminals! Why teach them trades? Why look for scholarships for their children? Why show kindness to sinners?” One answer among many others: Because they are sinners, and we are sinners, too. As much as they can learn from us, we can also learn from them – as we learned from the tax collector in today’s Gospel. Why be with sinners? Another answer: Because this is what Jesus would do.

School shooting incidents have plagued the US in recent years. Last week, dramatic CCTV footage of another student bringing a gun to school was released. What could have been a tragedy was prevented when part-time athletics coach and security guard Keanon Lowe disarmed the student and then embraced him. Why hug a potential killer? The coach saw more than just a possible murderer. And so he reached out. The student was no doubt wrong and endangered lives. But Lowe also said, “A lot of times, especially when you’re young, you don’t realize what you’re doing until it’s over, right?” At one point, the student had shouted, “No one cares about me!” Lowe’s answer, “I care about you. I do, bro! That’s why I’m here. I got you, buddy.”

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