It may help to understand today’s Gospel if we know who the characters in the parable are:
A publican is simply a tax collector. But understand, no matter how much you may hate filling in your tax returns for the IRS on April 15th, the publican was thought to be far worse. The Roman occupational government levied a tax on the Jews to pay for the cost of their own occupation. But, rather than spend the time and risk the possible danger associated with collecting the tax, the Romans sold their collection rights to enterprising Jews. The publicans would pay the Romans a fixed percentage of the tax, and then go about collecting as much as possible for themselves—sometimes even beyond the amount levied by the Romans.
The Pharisees were the descendants of the Machabees—those brave Jews who fought for the right to keep the Law of Moses after Jerusalem had been captured during the skirmishes that followed the break up of the Empire of Alexander the Great. In general, the thing that distinguished the Pharisees from other Jews in our Lord’s time was their public display of the Mosaic Law—so ostentatious a display that our Lord went so far as to label them hypocrites.[ii]
What is so captivating about today’s parable is that at first glance, the Pharisee seems to be the good man, and the publican the bad. By their own testimonies, the Pharisee generously does the things required by the Mosaic Law, while the publican does not. But our Lord was speaking to “those who trusted in themselves and despised others.” The criterion by which our Lord praises the publican and condemns the Pharisee is that publican recognizes his complete dependence on God, while the Pharisee thinks of himself as the source of great goodness. Indeed, the Pharisee compares himself to “the rest of men,” as though he were mankind’s unique gift to God! In essence, his prayer consisted in itemizing the ways in which God was lucky to have such an outstanding devotee! “Thank you, God, for making me so wonderful!” The publican, on the other hand was more realistic: “Be merciful to me the sinner.”
Now, our Lord was not suggesting that the publican lived an objectively holier life than the Pharisee. But He was reminding us that even living a holy life is not enough if we are doing so for our own convenience and our own glorification. Following “the rules” of religion is not enough if we don’t do so primarily out of the love of Almighty God and for His glorification. And, perhaps equally important, our Lord was telling us that we sinners can be forgiven if we come to Him with genuine contrition and an acknowledgement of our dependence upon Him.
It may not be as obvious, but today’s Epistle speaks to the same theme. Those of you who have read one or both of Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians know that he was writing to a very difficult and self centered people, with a lot of bad habits even in the practice of the Catholic Faith and their attendance at Holy Mass. For example, the Communion fast has its origin in Paul’s forbidding the Corinthians to bring food and drink with them to Mass, for the wealthy would dine extravagantly while the poor had to watch in envy: “For every one taketh before his own supper to eat. And one indeed is hungry and another is drunk.”[iii]
In today’s excerpt from the Epistle, Saint Paul speaks to another of the Corinthians’ bad behaviors at Mass. It is possible that some of them did have the genuine mystical experiences which Paul enumerates. The problem was that they insisted on demonstrating their “speaking in tongues” at Mass, thereby creating a completely unintelligible situation for everyone who was unable to understand the mystical speaking. In chapter fourteen he lays down rules for them, insisting that nothing be spoken that was not interpreted—and that everything was to be orderly and edifying. Paul didn’t say it in so many words, but the fact that he knew that the speaking in tongues could be turned on and off suggests that at least some of it was the fraud of people who just wanted to stand out in the congregation. This morning’s reading closes with the idea that all of these gifts—assuming that they were genuine—were the work of God and not the work of men, so that no one had the right to be proud of them as if they were any one’s own works. Just as with the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, all things must come from the love of God and must work for His glorification—not our own.
By the way, the problem of the Corinthians persists even in our day. The liberalism of the past forty years or so has permitted a number of people to pass themselves off as visionaries and prophets, as the recipients of private revelations, and as mystical speakers in tongues. A whole industry has come into being to publicize what are often dubious or downright silly claims of apparitions, and to provide half-baked “expert” interpretations. While our Lord and our Lady have been known, occasionally, to appear to humble seers in times of tribulation (at Guadalupe, or Lourdes, or Fatima, for example), the authenticity of these visions was assured only when Holy Mother Church determined that they were not occasions for the teaching of error; and that they took place for God’s purposes, and for His glorification alone. God’s glorification must be the theme of all things spiritual.
But let me close now, by reminding you that the theme of today’s Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the publican ought to inform your own spiritual life. It is undoubtedly good that we observe the Commandments of God and the Precepts of His Church. And, generally speaking, we find that keeping them brings order and peace and happiness to our lives—that is a pretty good reason in itself for “living by the rules”—society doesn’t work very well when people ignore God, or go around beating, cheating, and lying to one another. But keep firmly in mind that holiness is not meant simply for our own benefit. It is not something by which we can exalt ourselves; indeed our Lord tells us that such self exaltation can only lead to our being brought down in humiliation. But, on the other hand, those who humble themselves for the glory of God will, in fact, be exalted.