“O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
Two-thousand years ago this was a parable. Today it passes as politics.
This quote from today’s gospel of Luke was intended by Jesus to be an example of behavior to avoid. But as we enter another political season, it actually serves as a template for successful political speech. Negative campaigning has been the strategy of choice in recent years. And politicians don’t have a monopoly on self-serving behavior in our pop culture. Some of TV’s most watched reality shows have people competing against each other by attacking the character of their opponents. The highlight of Donald Trump’s Apprentice series is “The Boardroom,” when contestants are encouraged to slander their opponents’ behavior before saying why they themselves deserve to go on to the next round.
That was hardly St. Paul’s strategy in the portion of his letter to Timothy that we read this Sunday:
“I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
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.”
Paul was not only a good disciple of Jesus, but he was a good free-market economist. He doesn’t see competition as being part of a zero-sum-game, where someone must fight for a bigger piece of the pie (paradise) by depriving someone else of theirs. For him, paradise is an expanding pie, and he devoted his Christian life to guiding people toward this prize.
And unlike Donald Trump, who tends to award apprenticeships to those who advance the furthest by helping others fall behind, or many American voters, who are forced to award their votes to those who smell the least bad after a campaign of casting excrement at each other, our first reading from Sirach describes how our Father judges:
The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed. …
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right.”
Even those among us who aspire to great heights are repeatedly brought low by our sinful nature. It’s our duty and challenge not to revel in our great depths.