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effective August 6th, AD 2006
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When I was a boy, I had some difficulty understanding the parable given by our Lord in today’s Gospel. The Pharisee seemed to be doing all of the things that he was supposed to be doing. The other fellow, the Publican (who turns out to be a tax collector!) seems to be admitting that he is not doing the things he is supposed to do. Yet our Lord praises him over the Pharisee, saying that the Publican went back to his home justified, but the Pharisee did not. In retrospect, the problem was probably that youngsters tend to accept things at face value—only with a little bit of age and experience do we come to realize that people don’t always tell the truth, and that sometimes their actions are hypocritical.
The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was something that bothered our Lord a great deal. He spoke of “hypocrisy” as being “the leaven of the Pharisees.” That is, He was saying, that hypocrisy permeated the character of the Pharisees much like a little tiny bit of yeast permeates a whole mass of dough to make it rise before baking. They were concerned more with being seen by men doing the works of religion and charity, than with the doing of these works for the love of God and men. It was the Pharisees whom He had in mind in His Sermon on the Mount, when He told his listeners “not to blow a trumpet” when they gave alms to the poor; and not to pray standing up in the synagogues and on the street corners, “in order to be seen by men.” These were the men who wore the symbols of the Jewish faith—the “phylacteries and tassels”—but wore them in a larger size than everyone else in order to be seen; who loved the first places at suppers and in the synagogues; who loved to be called “Rabbi” or “Master” by everyone they met.
“Those who humble themselves will be exalted; those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Why must this be so? What exactly is so wrong about doing good in public? The answer to that question goes below the surface of the action to its motivation. One might even suggest that doing good in public and calling attention to it could be a positive thing if it induced others to do the same. But our Lord knew the hearts of men. He knew that the Pharisees thought of themselves as better than the next fellow—and yearned to have the next fellow agree with them. The Pharisee in our parable even had the audacity to tell God how much better he was than everyone else. It is almost as though He was waiting for the Divine Presence in the Temple to agree with him!
The underlying problem, of course, is that men who think they are intrinsically better than other men, often use their imagined “superiority” to justify terrible actions toward those whom they deem “inferior.” On the individual level, the man who feels that he is “better” than his neighbor will find it relatively easy to justify taking that neighbor’s money, or his property, or his wife, or even his life. On the level of nations, this perception of “superiority” is often all that is needed to justify wars, and invasions, and the subjugation or death of entire peoples. Man’s opinion of himself may even get to the point where he no longer feels any need for God Himself—“technological man” has been known to say that God is the God only of the weak and the backward of centuries past. This false superiority, or inordinate pride, then, can be a dangerous thing indeed. And in the eternal scheme of things it is obvious that the proud, those who exalt themselves, will be humbled.
But we must also ask what it means to be humble. Dom Eugene Boylen was a Trappist abbot of the early twentieth century. He was quite emphatic—in spite of what some of his predecessors had to say—that “you don’t make a man humble by humiliating him.” Dom Boylen was speaking about monks, but his advice is valid for us all. People become humble by recognizing that they have their strengths and their weaknesses according to the will of God. The humble person recognizes that he lacks certain talents and abilities that other people have, and that no amount of study or practice will completely make up the difference. But the humble person also recognizes that God has given him certain things at which he is good, or even very good—at which he may even become better through effort over time.
The humble person recognizes that his lack of talents and abilities in some areas do not make him “inferior,” or “bad,” or somehow “less of a human being.” Not everyone can play the violin at Carnegie Hall; not everyone can excel at quantum mechanics, or mathematics, or basketball. The humble person also recognizes that there are things that he does well; that he has talents that were given to him, which he should refine and share with those around him. Society needs talented surgeons, and cooks, and carpenters, and nannies, and airplane pilots, and any number of other skilled people. The humble person will recognize what he does well, and feel good about doing it well, but will not think that “doing better” “makes him better” than those who cannot do whatever it is as well.
Dom Boylen used to say, in effect, that the man who had a few years of practical experience was easy to make into a humble monk. The fellow who knew that he could earn a paycheck, and cook his own dinner, and clean up after himself had very little to prove—he had already proven it to himself, so he had no reason to try to convince others of his abilities. He also knew his own limitations, but had no reason to be ashamed of them.
God “works all things in all.... He allots to everyone as He will.” The proud and selfish person who fools himself into believing that his God given allotment is his own doing—who feels that he is somehow “better” than those who lack his natural talents—that person, in exalting himself, will eventually be humbled. The humble person—the realist—who glories in his talents as God given gifts, developing them for the common good—that person, in humbling himself, will be exalted.