For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a “publican” was a tax collector; much despised at the time of our Lord, for although he was Jewish, he collected taxes levied by the hated Roman occupational forces. And in a society which dealt more with commodities more often than with money, there was always a suspicion (probably correct) that the publican extorted even greater tax than the Romans required, keeping the difference for himself. In today’s parable, the publican was an example of someone whom everybody would recognize as being corrupt.
A “Pharisee,” on the other hand, belonged to the more respectable class of those who observed and specialized in interpreting the Law of Moses—“doctors of the Law” to use a modern phrase. The Gospels, however, provide abundant evidence that many of the Pharisees were hypocritical, observing the Law so as to be seen doing so by their fellow Israelites.
The point of today’s Gospel is that even though the Pharisee did many good things and the publican did many bad things, it was the publican whose prayer was heard, precisely because he had humility and the Pharisee did not. God was more pleased with the man who recognized his own shortcomings than He was with the one boasted of his good deeds. It was almost as though the Pharisee had told God how lucky He was to have such a splendid disciple!
Humility is an essential part of the spiritual life because without it man is prone to all kinds of sin. The original sin of Adam and Eve came about as a lack of humility allowed them to be deceived into thinking that they “would be like gods” if they ate the forbidden fruit. The man who thinks he is more important than his neighbor will have no trouble at all in rationalizing his desire to take away that neighbor’s goods, or that neighbor’s wife, or even to take away that neighbor’s very life—after all, he will imagine, he is more important in the greater scheme of things and that his needs are more important—why shouldn’t he lie to him, and steal from him, and cheat him?
The humble person, on the other hand, recognizes that many things are not his, and that he has no right to take them. And he recognizes that even the things which are his came to him by exercising the talents which God gave to him.
Saint Paul is saying the same thing in this morning’s Epistle. It is taken from the first of his letters to the people of Corinth, on the Greek peninsula. He established the Church there, among people who were impetuous and stubborn. The two letters we have to them (and another written by Pope Clement I around the year 95 or so) are written in the tone of admonition—trying to get them to correct their greater faults, so that they might live more authentically as Christians.
The portion we read this morning is from the twelfth chapter of the first epistle, and ought to be read in conjunction with the fourteenth chapter. In these two chapters Paul is lecturing them about the proper use of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. You may be aware that in the very early days of the Church, the Holy Ghost sometimes manifested Himself quite visibly through the actions of the faithful. Some might speak in a language which everyone could understand, as at Pentecost. Others might speak in unknown tongues, while still others would interpret what had been said. Some might have the gift of prophesy.
In the fourteenth chapter Paul will take the Corinthians to task for using these gifts more to show off than to worship God or to edify those who have come to Mass. But in this twelfth chapter, he is urging them to humility, for “in all these things the same Spirit worketh ... according as he will.” Paul is reminding them that none of these miraculous gifts are their own doing—they have no reason to boast about them, and no reason to believe that they would always possess them. (Indeed, in Pope Clement’s epistle he comments about the fact that by his time they had lost these charismatic gifts).
Note that Paul is not telling the Corinthians that they should hide their gifts or fail to make use of them at the proper time. He is simply urging them to realize that the gifts are from God, and to be used as appropriate.
And that is essentially the core of true humility. The humble man neither boasts about his talents nor hides them. He recognizes honestly the things he is able to do in this life and the things which he is not. He does not hold up to scorn those who cannot do the things he can do, and feels no great shame about his natural inabilities. He boasts not about his strengths, nor about his weaknesses. God has decided that some people will be brain surgeons, others will be rocket scientists, while yet others will be great violinists—the vast majority of us will be endowed with more modest talents. The humble man is he who recognizes God’s will and God’s benevolence in all of this, no matter where he may find himself in this scheme of things.
We have the very word of our Lord, Truth Himself, on this matter. The man filled with pride, who trusts in himself apart from God, who expects the first place at the banquet table, the man who boasts to God about the good things he does—that man will be humbled, indeed humiliated in eternity. But the man who humbles himself, who boasts not, and knows that all good things come from God—that man shall be exalted by God Himself.
 Gospel: Luke xviii: 9-14.
 For the most part the Roman “sold their receivables” to the publicans, who then kept whatever they collected for themselves.
 Luke xii: 1 “Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy”; Matthew xxiii:5-7. “And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad and enlarge their fringes. And they love the first places at feasts and the first chairs in the synagogues, and salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi.”
 Genesis iii: 5.
 1 Corinthians xii: 11.
 See also Luke xiv: 1-11.