[Ordinary of the Mass]
Just to be sure there is no confusion
about our Lord’s terminology, everyone should know that the Pharisee mentioned
in today’s parable was a member of the Jewish upper class. They were the
descendents of the Machabees, who threw the foreigners out of Jerusalem,
restored the Temple and its worship of the true God, and had great zeal for
keeping the Law of Moses. The publican, on the other hand is simply a tax
collector—one who exploited his fellow Jews on behalf of the hated Roman
occupiers. If any one other than our Lord were telling the story, we would
expect the Pharisee to be the good guy in the story, and the publican to be the
No doubt, our Lord chose His characters
carefully, for today’s parable is a lesson in the importance of humility and
the danger of pride.
The Pharisee, perhaps because of his
social standing, is very full of himself, elevating himself above “the rest of
men.” To listen to him, it is God who is lucky to have such a devoted
follower! The publican recognizing his own lowly condition, doesn’t
boast at all, but humbly asks forgiveness for the sins that all men commit.
Assuming that both men are honest in their assessment of themselves, we might
ask: Why is the Pharisee not justified like the publican?
The answer, of course, is that the
Pharisee is infected with the vice of pride, while the publican has the virtue
Let us be perfectly clear. When we
speak of pride as a vice, we are not referring to things like pride in one’s
workmanship, or the pride that makes people appear in public neatly dressed and
well groomed—that kind of pride is usually good or at least indifferent for
the welfare of society. People should care about the quality of their
labor, and ought not to go around dirty and offensive.
The pride that constitutes a vice is the
pride that distorts a person’s evaluation of himself, and which takes personal
credit for the good gifts that come from God alone and not from personal effort.
It is the pride that rejoices in not being like “the rest of men,” when, in
fact, we all share most of the same sins. It is the pride that proclaims:
“I am better than the people around me.” That sort of pride is sinful
for several reasons: It takes away from the credit that is due to God
alone; it makes us view our neighbors with contempt or condescension
rather than with the love that God commands; and it blinds the
pride-filled person to the real needs he has for making improvement.
The publican, in his humility, had none
of these faults: He acknowledges his dependence on God; he has no
reason for contempt or condescension toward his fellow man; and implies
that with God’s help he has plenty of room for improvement. It is he who
goes away justified in the sight of God.
Let me point out, too, that the publican
displayed no false humility. That is to say that he did not pretend
to have faults that he really did not have. True humility depends on an
accurate assessment of one’s self. To boast of one’s faults—and
particularly to exaggerate them is really an exercise in the vice of pride.
Claiming to have “the weakest will of all men,” or claiming to be “the
world’s worst sinner” is to boast—every much as it is a boast to say good
things about one’s self. And boasting is often identical with lying;
a sin in itself.
Our Lord, Himself. is the best possible
model for imitation. As Saint Paul tells us: ‘Christ Jesus, who
though He was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be
clung to, but emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like
unto men. And appearing in the form of man, He humbled Himself,
becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross. Therefore God also
has exalted Him and has bestowed upon Him the name that is above every
Our Lord Jesus Christ was, in fact, God.
As such He could have had anything the human heart could desire—riches, power,
fame, just name it—but instead, he was humble in all things. He carried
no purse, had no fine horse, had no soldiers, worked with His hands, surrounded
Himself with normal working class people. He could have summoned legions
of angels to protect himself from the crowd demanding His death and the Roman
executioners. Instead, His entire life was one continuous action of
Hopefully, none of us will be crucified.
And there may be nothing wrong with enjoying some of the luxuries available to
us—particularly after we have seen to the needs of the poor. But Jesus
Christ must still remain our perfect example of humility. And if we but
follow that example we can be assured that even as “the Father exalted Him”
he will also exalt us. We have our Lord’s word for it: “He who
humbles himself shall be exalted.”