Kilmainham Jail, 23rd October 2016
Last Sunday’s Gospel reminded us that we must pray often without tiring. In today’s Gospel, Saint Luke places the emphasis on how we pray and what our attitude in prayer and in our lives should be like.
The Gospel is a little more complex than at first sight. Our immediate reaction is to find the prayer of the Pharisee haughty and arrogant and we feel a natural sympathy for the tax collector’s simplicity. There is an evident contrast between the two figures.
But the reality is not quite so black and white. What we might overlook is the fact that if the Pharisee does all that he says he does, then the Pharisee is certainly an unusually good and generous man. All the things he boasts of go way beyond what was considered obligatory. He fasted more often than was necessary; he paid tithes for the poor which were way beyond what was demanded by the law.
The tax gatherer, on the other hand, was by no means exemplary. Tax collectors made their money by managing to get a little more tax from their clients than they were really entitled to. It was a profession which had become fundamentally dishonest and there was no easy way to change that.
Is Jesus telling us, then, that a man who is fundamentally dishonest is to be followed rather than a man who tries to follow the law with even greater zeal and generosity than he is called to? What is Jesus saying?
The problem is not about what each of the two figures does or does not do. It is about their attitude. Fundamentally the Pharisee’s prayer is not prayer at all. He is not thanking God for the fact that he has been able to live a deeply religious life; he is in fact talking to himself, rather than to God; he is not thanking God for what God had done for him, but thanking himself for what he thinks he does for God.
The Pharisee, despite his good intentions, has got it all wrong. He is trapped into doing things, into religious practices, and feels that because he is exemplary in counting the things he does, then he is entitled to a place of privilege; he looks on his observance of the law as a sort of guarantee of his salvation. His perfection is reduced to a self-proclaimed perfection.
The tax-collector/sinner does not dare to go into the place of honour in the Temple, but from a distance he recognises that there is something wrong in his life. He recognises his own sinfulness and realises that on his own he will never find relief from his sinfulness and thus he places all his trust in God and in God’s mercy.
The Gospel reading is fundamentally about how we achieve integrity within the complexity of the world in which we live.
We are celebrating Mass here not just in an historic national monument. We are celebrating Mass in a sacred space. It is sacred not just because it was at some moment or other blessed or consecrated in a liturgical ceremony. It is sacred because of the extraordinary faith which was shown here at a moment when all else seemed to be dominated by brutality.
Kilmainham Jail was a place of harsh punishment and death. It was also a place of nobility and idealism and of those things which represent the deeper dimensions of humanity. Each of those who was executed here was a person of faith. It varied from the mystical poetry of Plunket to the doubting faith of Connolly who found his peace with God right here in this chapel.
This is a place also where people accepted to face a violent death because they had a dream for Ireland. It was not a dream just for the Ireland of 1916, but it was a dream for us and for all the generations which will come after us also. Those executed here wanted us to benefit from their dream and for us then to realise our common dream for others.
We have to ask ourselves each day how have we given reality to that dream. What kind of Ireland do we want and what kind of Ireland have we achieved. Dreams are never realised; the nature if a dream is to challenge us to move beyond ourselves in goodness and truth, solidarity and generosity.
No society will ever be the ideal one. It is of human nature that we fail sometimes though our own faults, sometimes through unforeseen circumstances. But the fact that we may never arrive at what is ideal, does not mean that we cannot and should not propose an ideal, a dream to which we can aspire and hope. The Gospel message about integrity is a vital one for defining what dream we wish for Ireland.
The dream must be a dream about peace and harmony. In these days again we witness almost every day examples of senseless violence: there is the cold and unscrupulous violence of people shot deliberately, often in their homes and before their families. There is the repeated violence of stabbings, tragedies often unplanned, but nonetheless senseless and bringing tragedy to all involved. This violence attains nothing and as citizens we must all rise up against it in whatever way we can.
The restoration of this building as a landmark in our Irish history is also the fruit of men and women who had an ideal and who in the face of financial challenges and at times lack of interest doggedly set out to realise that ideal and succeeded. We are all indebted to you. This building is a monument to the spiritual strength and the faith of the men and women who lived and died for an ideal which Irish men and women and children should be able to achieve. I am honoured to have been asked to celebrate with you this morning.