30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) (Mission Sunday)
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14, 16-19; Psalm 33:2-3,17-19,23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
My dear friends, do you know the difference between hailing a taxi and calling an ambulance? Of course, I expect that many of us have the good fortune never to have had to call for an ambulance before. But, even so, perhaps we can imagine what it feels like to do so. And then compare that feeling with the experience of hailing a cab. So what is the difference?
Before considering the differences, we should note one important similarity. Whether we hail a taxi or call an ambulance, we do so only because we wish to be taken somewhere else. Both taxis and ambulances are for travel. But different types of travel. First, the situations are usually very different. Typically, we use taxis for routine travel. With ambulances, however, things are quite different. I don’t call an ambulance just to fetch me to work or to church. I do it only in an emergency.
Then, in addition to this difference in situations, there is also a difference in control. When I board a taxi, although the vehicle is being driven by someone else, I still remain very much in control. Or at least I expect to be. I control not only where we go, but also the route we take. In contrast, in an ambulance, I have to give up control. Over both destination and route. The urgency of the situation demands that the ambulance take me to the nearest hospital by the fastest way. I have little choice in the matter. I must simply submit myself to being brought where I need to go.
These differences in situation and control should help me to appreciate an even deeper difference between taxi and ambulance. Although both vehicles bring me to new physical locations, when I hail a cab, I usually do so only to remain the way I am. To maintain the status quo. In contrast, whenever I call an ambulance, it’s always in the hope of arriving at something new. To be rescued from illness. To experience healing. I board a taxi for constancy. I ride an ambulance for change.
Routine versus emergency. Control versus submission. Constancy versus change. These are some of the contrasts between taxis and ambulances. And it’s important to keep them in mind. If we are to avoid tragic consequences. Imagine what would happen, for example, if an ambulance arrives for me, but I stubbornly resist being taken away. Or I argue with the paramedics over where I want to go. I act as though I were boarding a taxi instead of an ambulance. The resultant delay could well make the difference between life and death.
But we also need to realise that these contrasts apply not just to travel on the roads. They apply just as well to travel in the spirit. Which is what our Mass readings are about: spiritual travel. Notice how, in the second reading, St. Paul describes his life in terms of a movement from one place to another. At the beginning of the reading, he speaks of having run the race to the finish. Then, at the end, he confidently declares that the Lord will bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom. And notice too how the first reading speaks of the humble man’s prayer piercing the clouds and arriving before God.
And just as it is important to distinguish between different forms of travel by road. So too is it crucial that we discern between different approaches to travel in spirit. Isn’t this the critical lesson that Jesus is trying to teach the Pharisees in the gospel? In the parable that he tells, the Lord makes a sharp distinction between two different approaches to prayer. One helpful and one not. One practiced by the Pharisee. The other by the tax collector. And the contrasts between these two approaches to prayer are strikingly similar to those between taxis and ambulances.
The Pharisee prays as though he were simply hailing a cab. Very likely, for him it’s all only a matter of routine. Not that routine is bad. It can actually be very helpful. Many of us come to Mass as a matter of routine. That’s okay. But routine alone is not enough. Not by a long shot. Imagine how a wife would feel if she could tell that her husband was taking her out on a date only to check off an item on his to-do list. Or imagine how you would feel if I presided at this Mass mechanically. For no other reason than routine. In contrast to the Pharisee’s routinised performance, the tax collector prays like someone truly experiencing an emergency. Rather than hailing a cab, he is quite obviously calling an ambulance. He is painfully aware of his own dire need for divine intervention. God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
Next, it is quite obvious that at no point in his prayer does the Pharisee surrender control. Instead, he speaks to God as though he were giving directions to a cab driver. He knows exactly where to go. And how to get there. I am not like this tax collector, he says. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get… In contrast, the tax collector’s posture eloquently expresses his sense of his own helplessness. His realisation that his life is beyond his control. He stands some distance away. He dares not raise his eyes. He beats his breast. And, unlike those of the Pharisee, these actions of the tax collector are not affectations. Things he does just to impress bystanders. No. The tax collector’s posture is clearly not one of arrogant control, but of humble submission.
Finally, as with hailing a cab and calling an ambulance, we see in the Pharisee and the tax collector the same contrast between constancy and change. Being so incredibly satisfied with himself, the Pharisee seeks only to remain as he is. To maintain the status quo. It is the tax collector who desperately wishes to improve his spiritual state. And He knows he needs God’s assistance to do it. He prays for help to change.
Routine versus emergency. Control versus submission. Constancy versus change. The same differences that we find between taxis and ambulances, we find as well between the prayer of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector. And this sharp contrast has serious consequences. Although the Pharisee and the tax collector both appear to be praying, Jesus says that only the tax collector goes home at rights with God. Only his prayer finds a hearing. Like the prayer of the humble man in the first reading, only the tax collector’s prayer pierces the clouds. Only his petition arrives finally before God.
All of which should prompt us to reflect on our own practice of prayer. When we come to Mass every Sunday, for example. Is it only a matter of routine or of emergency? Do we act like we are in total control, or do we humbly submit to God’s action? Do we truly seek lasting change, or do we cling stubbornly to the status quo? Even more, it’s important that we allow these questions to inform not just our prayer, but also our work, our sense of mission. Our efforts to reach out to those most in need. Most in need not just of material help. But also of spiritual rescue.
Routine versus emergency. Control versus submission. Constancy versus change. These crucial contrasts make the difference between life and death. For ourselves and for our world. My dear sisters and brothers, both in the way we pray and in the way we fulfil our Christian mission, what exactly are we doing? Do we act like we are truly crying for an ambulance? Or are we only calling a cab today?