'I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me...' -- II Timothy 4:8

Last week's readings zeroed in on the relationship expected of all people of faith with God. A life based on faith demands we relate with God, not try to control God.

This Sunday's Gospel passage (Luke 18:9-14) outlines the first step in building and maintaining such a relationship: honesty.

No two people could be further apart on a first-century-CE Palestinian religious scale than a Pharisee and a tax collector. The former was akin to a "super-Jew," spending his life studying, teaching and keeping the 613 Laws of Moses.

Everything he did revolved around those Sinai regulations. Scanning his temple competition, he could logically say, "I'm not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector."

The latter, on the other hand, really didn't give much thought to those Mosaic precepts. As a collector of taxes, he centered his life on a different value system. He would have daily done things forbidden to mainstream Jews.

Tax collector's prayer
The money he so faithfully amassed went not to his fellow Jews, but to his country's enemies: the Romans. A traitor to his people, he helped keep their oppressors in power. And he usually acquired those taxes by "immoral" means: extortion, blackmail and strong-arm tactics.

He not only was hated by everyone, but, because of his profession, he constantly was at odds with the very regulations the Pharisee esteemed. Though tax collectors weren't forbidden under pain of death, like Samaritans, to enter the temple precincts, his presence in that sacred space would have surprised other worshippers: "There goes the neighborhood!"

Yet Jesus praises this religious scoundrel at the same time He brushes aside the religious perfectionist. Out of the two, the tax collector alone leaves "justified" -- doing what God wants him to do, simply being honest about himself. His only prayer is, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Unlike the Pharisee, he doesn't compare himself with anyone else. He just zeroes in on his own moral condition.

Faking relationships
If all valid relationships revolve around giving ourselves to others, they can only work when we begin the process by being honest about who it is who's actually doing the giving. Yet, we fake it so often during our encounters with others that we also fall into that trap when we're really trying to build relationships with significant others.

Luke's Jesus reminds us that faking it with God is a no-no. God simply expects us to tell Him who we really are.

Sirach (35:12-14,16-18), in our first reading, encourages us not to worry: God treats everyone with total impartiality -- a God of justice, of relationships. He gives everyone an even break. If our relationship isn't working, it can only be because we're holding back from giving our true selves to God, often because of something embarrassing in that true self.

The author of II Timothy (4:6-8,16-18) has no problem conveying his insights into Paul's personality, even when they suggest some of the Apostle's weaknesses.

Though he's writing about a larger-than-life figure, he doesn't hesitate to get down to the nitty-gritty: Paul wasn't the kind of individual who appealed to everyone. "At my first defense, no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me."

Some of us would also pause before stepping forward to defend such a radical person of faith. Paul wasn't perfect. Perhaps that's why he, like us, constantly falls back on his relationship with the risen Jesus: the one person who presumes we're not perfect, and is grateful whenever we admit it.