However all of them -- even the worst -- were especially deal to Jesus' heart. And this not because they were "virtuous," but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, "Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God's Kingdom before you religious professionals."
More specifically, in this morning's first reading, Sirach says that the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly are the ones Yahweh fittingly pays attention to. That same theme appears in the refrain we all sang together in today's responsorial psalm, "The Lord hears the cry of the poor."
As a result, those who simply belong to that category -- the poor and oppressed -- are "justified" in virtue of their social (non) status. The word "justified" means "made just" -- or fit to enter God's Kingdom where justice is the order of the day.
Similarly justified are the non-poor who imitate Sirach's "God of Justice" by conscious identification with those considered "sinners" by the prevailing culture. Those who humble themselves in that way are like Sirach's "God of justice" who hears the cry of the oppressed, the wail of the orphan, the prayer of the lowly. Or (again) as our responsorial psalm put it today: "The Lord hears the cry of the poor."
But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God's Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don't think so. God's Kingdom is for everyone.
Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don't really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.
The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple's holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered "unclean." In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn't want to be there.
Let's put that in terms we can understand in our culture.
Usually rich white people don't want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with black people -- especially if those in question aren't rich like them.
Imagine God's Kingdom in terms of the ghetto. Rich white people don't want to be there.
But ironically, according to this morning's readings -- according to Jesus -- the "undesirables" who live there are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is "not unduly partial to the weak." Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today's liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!
This means that any separation from God's chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.
So today's readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector -- of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter's -- is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It rejects such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus' parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.
As always with Jesus' teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God -- about those who belong and those who exclude themselves.
In practice, this realization suggests for starters that:
" It's no badge of honor to subscribe to conventional morality or conventional wisdom.
" Christians are called to be counter-cultural -- more in solidarity with those we associate with pimps than with popes.
" For "Americans" this means discounting middle class morality and (white) "family values" as criteria of faith.
" According to Jesus, by itself such conformity actually excludes one from participation in God's promised future.
" Instead authentic faith means living a life of solidarity with the poor -- making their issues our own.
" Hence Christians should be in the forefront of movements on behalf of the poor.
" For example, rather than joining "devout Catholics" like Paul Ryan in leading crusades to cut back food stamp programs, we should be applying pressure to expand them.
" The same holds true for public housing, Medicaid, Social Security, and voting rights.