Today's Gospel is another of those which requires a bit of explanation -- one that can be misleading or confusing when we hear it for the first time, and take it out of context. As a word of background, you should know that the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews -- those who were zealous about keeping the Commandments, and who interpreted the religious laws for the people -- they tended to be "show-offs" about their religion. A Publican was a Jew who collected taxes for the Romans -- you can imagine how well liked the Publicans were amongst the Jews!
Our Lord is not condemning the Pharisee for what he has done, but rather for his opinion of himself after he has done it. Keeping the Commandments is good. Fasting is good. Giving tithes for the support of the church is good. But taking credit for being so good, and comparing one's self to others less good, is loathsome in God's eyes.
And, likewise, he is not praising the Publican for his mis-deeds, but rather for his humility. Our Lord is not praising him for extorting the foreigner's taxes from his own people, nor for any of the other sins of which he was conscious. Our Lord praised him because he recognized his limitations, and was humble enough to put his trust in God.
Without hearing the words of St. Paul, the Publican knew that all of our gifts are "the work of one and the same Spirit, who allots to everyone, according as he will." We are wrong, in other words, to take too much credit for our good works, because they are really the works of God, without whom we could do nothing -- and "who rewards in secret."
We are cautioned in this lesson, to avoid the sin of pride. This is not, of course, to say that we should not take reasonable pride in things like our workmanship or our appearance. What we are cautioned about is to avoid thinking that our good works are exclusively ours -- that we do them without help from God or any other person. We are particularly cautioned about contrasting ourselves with those around us; "I am glad that I am not like this Publican."
This sort of false pride is the beginning of all sin. It is the sin of the fallen angels, who thought they were too beautiful to serve God -- "I will not serve," is the motto of Satan. It is the sin of Adam and Eve, who were convinced that they would become as knowledgeable as God if they ate the forbidden fruit.
It is also the root of every sin since Adam's. Man wouldn't steal if he didn't think he was more important than his neighbor, with a superior right to his property. He wouldn't kill if he didn't think he had a greater right to life and property than his victim. He wouldn't commit adultery if his perception of marital rights wasn't distorted by pride. He wouldn't give up the practice of his religion if pride didn't convinced him that he was as important as any old fashioned notion of God. Pride is very much the sin of the modern era -- of the secular humanism which champions the worth of man at the expense of God.
But pride has a funny way of finding its own punishment. It is a sin so hateful to God that he allows the sinner to punish himself by falling into the most degrading of vices. It doesn't take much imagination to see what will happen to a person who continuously indulges himself.
The alternative, of course, is what we see in the Publican. The antidote for pride is humility -- the acknowledgement that the good things we have and do, come from God and with the help of other people. It is the acknowledgement that all those around us were created by God with the same human dignity, even if their talents differ. By the way, humility is not any sort of false claim to be less than we really are. Continuously boasting of our limitations is just another form of pride -- being "proud of our humility" as we sometimes jokingly say. The truly humble person will accurately know both his strengths and his weaknesses. He won't be afraid to use his gifts for the glory of God, for his neighbor, or even for himself -- but he also won't be expecting to hear how wonderful he is, or how much better he is than his peers.
Pride carries the seeds of its own downfall, because it rejects the help of God and neighbor so essential to the performance of good works. It is hateful to God, and often to man ÄÄ most everyone dislikes having to listen to a braggart!
Humility, on the other hand, brings its own reward. It offends no one, and often motivates us to seek the help of God and fellow men in accomplishing the things that are truly good in this life.
Remember our Lord's words: "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.