by Rev. Richard A. Miserendino
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
He then spoke this parable addressed to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee with head unbowed prayed in this fashion: 'I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men-grasping, crooked, adulterous-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess.' The other man, however, kept his distance, not even daring to raise his eyes to heaven. All he did was beat his breast and say, 'O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.' Believe me, this man went home from the temple justified but the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled while he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
Every time I read our Gospel for this Sunday (Lk 18:9-14), I have the same thought: “Man, that Pharisee in the parable is such a disaster. Thank God I’m not like that … Oh wait.”
It’s so easy to become the Pharisee, especially when we’re doing most things well or have a solid idea of right and wrong. The more we do what we’re supposed to, the easier it becomes to see those who are not, and the more tempting it becomes to denounce them. It doesn’t even have to be in prayer. Other modern examples of the Pharisee’s pride are abundant.
For example, in our current polarized political landscape, there are plenty of folks who give daily thanks that they’re not like those corrupt or evil people on the other side of the political spectrum. After all, the Pharisee was actually doing many things right, and the tax collector was actually doing many things wrong. Here Jesus highlights that we can check all the right boxes for being good, faithful people and still be horrible about how we do it. Humility is a necessary interior disposition, without which the whole thing is pointless.
Or perhaps we’re Pharisees of a different stripe when we lack charity of speech about others. This typically takes the form of the “Slash-and-Praise” when we’re talking about others. “You know John, he’s a great guy, but I mean sheesh, what a disaster when it comes to his home life.” Being a Pharisee, lacking humility, sometimes means padding our sinful detraction with little compliments to make ourselves feel better about the insults we’ve just levied.
There are plenty of ways to be a Pharisee. There’s only one way to be righteous in God’s eyes: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The humble prayer is the acceptable prayer. And the tax collector’s prayer is humble and acceptable because his eyes are not fixed on others or anything else; but his heart is squarely fixed on God. Where is he before God and in God’s eyes? Like the tax collector, if we give heed to our neighbor, we’re called only to do so in love. Thus, we should turn to God in faith, yes, but in humble faith. We should pray for humility.
There is a bit of a problem with praying for humility, though. It’s that, pound for pound, humility is the most dangerous gift of all to pray for. Why? Because the only way God can make us humble is by humor and humiliation. Praying for humility is praying to be humiliated or to be shaken into taking ourselves less seriously. Why? Because humiliation is the only tool that exists for instantly stripping away our pride and defenses and making us realize how vulnerable and poor we really are. Otherwise, we just go on thinking, “Ah no. I can do it myself, I just need more chances.” or “I am really great, you just caught me on a bad day.” It hurts, but it’s a hurt that ultimately leads to healing. It’s a cross, even. But we who love God know that all crosses, if faithfully borne, lead to the resurrection.
God wants to make us truly humble to make us whole and holy. He doesn’t call us to ignore right and wrong as some suppose, he doesn’t say it’s better to be a tax collector than a Pharisee following the law. But he does point out that we need that interior gift of humility, that vision of who we are before God, as sinners redeemed only because he loves us and has mercy on us. Christ invites us to pray for that gift today.