All throughout this Mass, the readings speak to us of relying on the mercy of God, and acknowledging that we can live effective lives only when we cooperate with God's graces:
"Keep me, O Lord, as the apple of Thine eye. Protect me under the shadow of Thy wings." (Gradual)
"Hear, O God, my prayer, and despise not my supplication." (Introit)
"In Thee, O God, I put my trust; let me not be put to shame." (Offertory)
This Mass formulary is at least 1,000 years old, the Epistle and Gospel about 2,000, and the Psalms over 3,000. Yet, if anything, this message of dependence on God is more pertinent today than ever.
In our society there is a continuing temptation for us to think of ourselves as very important, and deserving of great material rewards. We are told that we "deserve" to lead the "life-style" of the wealthy and carefree. "Everyone" should vacation in Europe, or Japan, or even more exotic places. We are "supposed" to wear the latest fashions, eat at the best restaurants, and drive the best cars.
We are expected to "keep up with the Jonses" -- not just to keep up with them, but to exceed them just a little in everything they have.
Perhaps worst of all, we are conditioned to believe that there is no problem that society cannot solve. Technology will give us a new heart when we need one, and allow us to defy nature with a perverted way of life. The government will take care of all of our social ills -- all we need is a few more "programs." Man expects to continue on an upward spiral, until he displaces the God he used to depend upon.
But, our Lord warned us against such foolish ambitions and silly notions 2,000 years ago. Look at what he has to say in the Gospel.
The Pharisee was one of the leaders of the Jewish society. He was, in fact, doing good things; fasting, giving to charity, and so on. But yet, our Lord rebukes him. Why? -- because he could only see his good works as his own doing. "I do this . . . I do that." That "vertical pronoun" (I) is one of the devil's favorite words -- as in "I will not serve."
The Publican, on the other hand, is praised. Not because of his good deeds, but because he understood that he was weak, and that only God would be able to help him to do good.
Like any idea, false pride has consequences. When I see myself as more important than those around me, I quickly loose respect for the natural law. If I am as important as I think I am, then clearly I have the right to my neighbors goods, or to his wife; I have the right to injure him or lie to him if it will benefit me.
In fact, as I become more important in my estimation of myself, even God Himself tends to be diminished in my sight. "God is lucky to have such fine, upstanding, creatures like me and my friend the Pharisee!"
What a shock it is then, when in the end, the exalted find themselves humbled. And, it is even worse for them when they see the humble exalted.
It is God who clothes the lilies of the field, and who puts fruit on the trees. At best, man can only cooperate with the efforts of God in nature. Only God can bring knowledge, and faith, and healing, and prophecy, and the interpretation of strange tongues. The devil may counterfeit these gifts for our great confusion, but only God can work them to our benefit. Only God can give us the gifts of the Holy Ghost, the virtues, and the Sacraments.
We ought to make the prayer of this Mass our own: "That God, who manifests His power in showing pity, may increase His mercy towards us, and make us partakers of His heavenly treasures."
God is not against a well ordered pride -- a pride in our workmanship, pride in a loving family, or even pride in presenting a decent appearance. But He is clearly against those who "trust in themselves, and despise others."
"He who exalts himself shall be humbled; he who humbles himself shall be exalted!"