[Ordinary of the Mass]
Today's Gospel is one of those that
seem a little backwards at first look: If we take them at their word, the
Pharisee seems to be a good man, doing the right things. And the Publican
seems to be a sinner, not to mention a hated tax-collector. And yet our
Lord is disapproving of the good man, and approving the bad one.
Well, obviously, our Lord is not
endorsing sin, or disparaging goodness. What He is pointing out is the
value of humility, and the danger of pride.
And, for the most part, we don't
much trouble in understanding what He is getting at. Because whenever we
encounter such proud people as this Pharisee, they annoy us just as they
annoyed our Lord. There is very little that is more difficult to take than
to have to listen to someone talk about how good they are, or how
successful, how wealthy, how good looking, or whatever. We are even
bothered by false modesty, when people are vocal in claiming to be something
less than they actually are. Simply stated, we tend to dislike people
talking about themselves a great deal; particularly if it is obvious that
they are not being truthful.
We can easily see that
pride—considering our self to be more important than those around us—is an
important part of most of the sins we commit. Adam and Eve sinned, because
they thought the devil was giving them the opportunity to be equal to God.
The fallen angels fell for much the same reason. And when we consider
ourselves to be more important than we actually are, there is a great
temptation to think that such “importance” puts us above the divine law. “I
am so important that I have the right to take my neighbor's property, or
take his wife, or violently abuse him. In fact, I'm so important that I
don't even have to concern myself with God Himself.” So there seems to be a
connection between this false pride and the motivation sin.
If it annoys us to have to listen to
such arrogant people, imagine being God—knowing all truth, and seeing all
things in true perspective—and having to listen Your creatures telling You
how wonderful they are. And that is what our Lord is focusing on in today's
Gospel; how God wants us to examine our conscience truthfully, and to
recognize that there is always room for improvement.
Truth is an important part of
humility, for just as we must not claim to be more than we are, we must also
recognize the gifts that God has given us—recognize them, and put them to
use for good purposes. When we speak of “pride in workmanship” or “pride in
appearance,” we are really speaking about a form of humility—recognizing our
God given abilities, and making the best of them for good purposes.
The Epistle mentions that there are
a diversity of graces that can come to us through the working of the Holy
That ought to bring to mind the Seven Sacraments, the normal way in which
Christ gives us the graces to live and die as a good Catholic. We are born
again, strengthened and nourished, provide for posterity, and are prepared
for death through the working of the Holy Ghost in the Sacraments. The life
of God is made to live in our souls. As the Epistle says, the Holy Ghost
gives us gifts like wisdom, and knowledge, and faith.
St. Paul mentions some of the more
exotic graces that the early Catholics received in order to establish the
Church; he speaks of miracles, and healing, speech in foreign tongues, or
understanding languages not learned.
But he closes with a statement that
these more exotic gifts are not something we can strive to possess. They
come only as the free gift of God. “All these things are the work of the
one Holy Spirit, who allots to everyone as He wills.” They are given by God
only when they are necessary to accomplish God's purposes in the world:
“The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit.” In other
words, if and when God does give such special gifts, they are not for the
honor and glory of the recipient, but for the public good of the Church.
I mention this, because one of the
errors being spread in the modern church is that anyone and everyone, can
and should, be “open to the Spirit” and speak in unknown tongues, and
prophesy, and perhaps heal the sick. If you go to the more “progressive”
churches, you will find that they want to lay hands on you, and anoint you,
and “slay you in the spirit,” and whatever else, in order to produce all of
Clearly such Pentecostalism is
nothing other than tempting God, demanding of Him something He has not
promised; a personal pipeline of divine revelation—clearly at odds with what
St. Paul tells us about the gifts of the Holy Ghost; that they are given as
God wants, and not as we demand; that they are given to work God's purposes
and not to give us a new “trick” to boast about.
And that brings us right back to our
Lord's teaching in the Gospel: Pride is a detestable thing. It is
detestable on the merely human level, for no one cares to hear boasting and
falsehood. It is the root of virtually all sin. And it is certainly
detestable when we boast before God, or try to demand divine favors to seem
more important than those around us.
God humbles everyone who tries to
exalt himself—but he also exalts those who humble themselves and that's a
pretty easy choice, isn't it?