To read the texts click on the texts: Sir 35:15-17,20-22; 2 Tim 4:6-8; Lk 18:9-14
The Parable in today’s Gospel is popularly known as that of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. However, it is not so much about these persons as it is about the disposition for prayer in any person. This parable is exclusive to Luke and is addressed, not to the Pharisees but to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This could be a description of any self-righteous person. There is a great difference between being righteous and being self-righteous. The righteous person knows that he / she is dependent on God and can do nothing without God’s help. The self-righteous person, on the other hand, is so filled with self importance and pride that he / she cannot see beyond his / her own nose. These self-righteous assume that God is dependent on them.
The defect of the Pharisee in the Parable is not that he gives thanks for what God has done for him. This is laudable. The defect is in his prideful disdain for others. He contrasts himself to a rash of unsavoury people – the greedy, the dishonest, adulterers – but saves the tax collector for the end. His very position of prayer betrays his pride. He steps apart from the crowd, as if God could not notice him wherever he is. The tax collector, however, simply stands at a distance and will not even raise his eyes to heaven. His bodily posture is itself a prayer. His plea to God, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” confirms this.
He goes home, made just in God’s eyes. The justice of God accepts the unjust and the ungodly. The parable summons us to a prayer of love and trust in God’s mercy. It frees us from the need to tell God who is a sinner and who is not. It summons us to realize that, even when we are righteous, it is because of God’s grace that we can be so. Only those who can acknowledge their own weaknesses feel the need to turn to God in prayer with sentiments of humility. But those who stand before God and others with an attitude of “Look what I have made of myself” will hardly realize the need to ask for God’s help in doing good. They presume that they can manage it by themselves. These are the ones who do not realize that their ability to be good and to do good is itself a reward from God.
The Pharisee in today’s Gospel very likely did live a life devoid of greed, dishonesty, and adultery. He probably did fast and tithe. But he did not realize that it was the goodness of God that lifted him up so that he could act in this righteous manner. He believed instead, that it was his own goodness that raised him up above others. On the other hand, in order to gain a livelihood, the tax collector likely did extort money from taxpayers. He was a sinner, and knew he was a sinner. But, he also knew that only God could lift him up. It was the tax collector’s humble demeanour that earned God’s grace.
The second reading of today shows that, in some ways, Paul resembles both the Pharisee and the tax collector. Like the Pharisee, he boasts of his accomplishments. He has competed well; he has finished the race; he has kept the faith; he has earned a crown of righteousness. Paul never denies the character of his commitment or the extent of his ministerial success. But, like the tax collector, he knows the source of his ability to accomplish these things. He says, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” For Paul, all the glory belongs to God. Paul believes that he will receive “a crown of righteousness.” However, his attitude is radically different from that of the Pharisees in the Gospel. Paul knows of, and realizes, his nothingness. All the good that he is able to do to “fight the good fight” and to “run the race to the finish”, has been made possible by God’s help. Although he seems sure of being rewarded, he recognizes the reward as coming from God, not from himself. His affirmation at the end of the reading summarises this attitude. It is the Lord, and not his own accomplishments, who will give to him the crown of righteousness.
In Christianity and in the following of Jesus, there is no room for arrogance. We are all limited human beings with weaknesses that can trip us up if we are not vigilant. We are all poor and lowly, in need of the protection and strength that come to us from God. We are all sinners, dependent on divine mercy. It is indeed foolish and vain to think that we are better than others. It does no good whatsoever to treat others with disrespect or disdain.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. Therefore, persons who exalt themselves over others and boast of their virtue before God will discover that they have cut themselves off from both. Persons who are aware of their need for grace and forgiveness will be unable to disrespect or despise other people.