The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 26, 2001 Issue
Fr. Ver Bust's Column:
"Explaining the Gospel"

Fr. Richard Ver Bust
Fr. Richard Ver Bust

Recognize the need for forgiveness

Jesus condemns the attitude that suggests we do not need God

October 28, 2001, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Fr. Richard Ver Bust

This week we hear the very familiar parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. That may be a problem. Sometimes when we hear and know a parable so well, it does not speak to us as forcefully as others. Luke again uses the theme of reversal to emphasize the point of the parable.

The audience would hardly expect a tax collector to be praised. This would be especially true when contrasted with a Pharisee. The expectation would be that everything in the religious life of a Pharisee would be exemplary. That is certainly what the Pharisee himself expresses. He followed the law in all of its details. In fact he goes beyond the expectations of what the law required. A good Jew was expected to fast only on the Day of Atonement. Our Pharisee fasts twice a week. One was expected to tithe on what one earned. This man tithes on all his possessions. So we hear that he stands in the temple with hands extended in what would be the expected posture of prayer. He makes a personal judgement on his behavior and tells God what he has done. You can almost hear him say, "God, you owe me!"

The tax collector, in striking contrast, seems to be far from the front of the temple, beats his breasts and admits his sinfulness. In that society, the tax collector's faithfulness to his religion would certainly be questioned. Tax collectors worked with and for the Romans. They received no salary but whatever they could charge over and above what the taxes were, in effect, was theirs. Since they collaborated with the enemy who were Gentiles and associated with them, they were considered ritually impure. People, especially the Pharisees, thought they were greedy and dishonest. The tax collector here seems to admit his sinfulness.

If you were to ask the average person of that time who was sinful and dishonest all would probably point to the tax collector. The problem though is that the Pharisee thinks that justification or being made righteous in the sight of God was a matter of obeying the details of the law. It is the sense that I make things right and God must agree. The tax collector, on the other hand, realizes that he needs God. God alone can make one righteous. It is a gift and one needs to accept the gift.

The tax collector asked God to forgive him. The Pharisee asked for nothing for he seemed to imply he could do it himself. As a result the Pharisee received nothing. The point of the parable is that we need God. Jesus is condemning an attitude that suggests we do not need God.

Jesus praises the person who recognizes the need for forgiveness. How often do we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and say, "well I haven't committed sin" and don't really seek God's forgiveness. The Responsorial Psalm tells us when the just cry out, God hears them.

We may not be materially poor as the Book of Sirach suggests, but we are spiritually poor and in need of God's help.

So the proper attitude, besides persevering in prayer, is one in which we recognize that we need God. Centuries ago a man by the name of Pelagius suggested that we can live the Christian life based upon our own resources. The Church rejected this for it remembered that Christ taught that we need God and can not achieve salvation on our own.

(Fr. Ver Bust holds the title of professor emeritus in religious studies at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)

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