Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—28 July A.D. 2013

 [Ordinary of the Mass]
[English Text]
[Latin Text]

    I remember hearing this parable of the Pharisee and the publican as a young boy and completely missing its meaning.[1]  It seemed to be another one like the parable of the unjust steward who had been squandering his master's goods.  The Pharisee seemed to be doing good things, while the publican didn't seem to be doing much of anything.  I guess the concept of “humility” is pretty much wasted on most young men ten or twelve years of age.  But it turns out that humility is one of the most important concepts of our Catholic Faith, so let me explain the parable with some background information.

    Our Lord “sets up” this parable, as he often does, by picking one character whom everyone expects to be the “good guy,” and another whom everyone expects to be the “bad guy,” and then reversing those roles.  The Good Samaritan, for example, is a foreigner and an outcast from Jewish society.  The priest and the levite are supposedly pillars of that society.  But, as everyone knows, the Samaritan is the one who helps the man injured by robbers after the priest and the levite cross the road to ignore him.

    In today's parable, the Pharisee is the supposed pillar of society—he is a descendant of the Machabees, those men who fought valiantly against the generals of Alexander the Great to restore the observance of God's Law and God's worship in and around the Temple at Jerusalem.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ time still held their ancestors’ positions of leadership, but their zeal for God’s Law was more of a show to gain the respect of those who saw them.  The Law required Jewish men to wear tassels on their garments, so the Pharisees wore very wide tassels, so that they might be seen keeping the Law.[2]  The Law required them to fast, so they disfigured their faces so that they might be seen fasting.[3]  In another Gospel passage, our Lord would say that “hypocrisy is the leaven of the Pharisees.”[4]  Nonetheless we read today that this Pharisee was boasting before God in the Temple about how well he kept the Law, and how much better he was than other men.  He was almost telling God that He (God) was very lucky to have such an upstanding follower.  Given this perspective, it is easy to see why our Lord said that the Pharisee left the Temple unjustified.

    A publican is a tax collector—a Jew who worked for the hated Roman occupational forces, extracting money from his fellow Jews—“blood money,” must of them would have said.  Our publican is obviously the one everyone would expect to be the “bad guy” in the story.  But the point of our Lord's parable is not about good or bad deeds, but rather about one's attitude towards God, and particularly about how one sees one’s self in relation to God.  Acknowledging one’s shortcomings puts one in far better stead with God than does telling God how lucky He is to know such a splendid devotee! 

    True humility is the opposite of false pride.  The sin of Adam and Eve was the false pride given to them by the devil—that they believed that they would “be like gods” if they ate the forbidden fruit.[5]  The desire to be one's own god is certainly worse than anything the Pharisee could have done.  Most of us don't aspire to be gods—most of us are content with just being “better than the other guy.”

    But thinking that we are “better than the other guy” is similarly false pride.  We are all God's children, and in His eyes no one is more precious than another.  Look at the damage that results from thinking that we are, indeed, “better than the other guy.”  If I really think I am better than my neighbor, what is there to keep me from thinking that I am entitled to take his property if it suits me?  If I really am better than he, what is there to keep me from thinking that I can take his wife?  Or, for that matter, what is there to keep me from thinking I can take his life?  And, if I can think that I can take my neighbor's life, wife, and property, have I not—at least in my own mind—made myself a god?  Am I any better than Adam in wanting to be god?  Am I any better than this Pharisee boasting before God?  Certainly, if I make myself out to be a god, I will be far less in God's opinion—and it is God's opinion that counts—I would be far less than this publican who felt not worthy even to raise his eyes to heaven.  In this context it is plain to see how “he who exalts himself will be humbled.”

    But, if I can take but few more minutes, I would like to point out that our Lord was in no way minimizing the importance of doing good.  We meet another publican, one named Zachæus, in another account, in the very next chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel.[6]  It is read just about every time we celebrate Mass on the anniversary of the dedication of a church.  It is kind of a cute story, for Zachæus is a short man, unable to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd in front of him—so what does Zachæus do, but he climbs a tree along the route by which Jesus will pass.  On noticing him, Jesus was apparently impressed with Zachæus’ zeal for seeing Him.  So Jesus said to him: “Zachæus, make haste and come down; for this day I must abide in thy house.”  And Zachæus was very pleased to extend his hospitality to our Lord, but some of the onlookers were critical: “they murmured, saying, that ‘He was gone to be a guest with a man that was a sinner.’”  So, not boasting, but just defending himself  against the accusations of the crowd, Zachæus explained to Jesus that he really wasn’t all that bad: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wronged any man of any thing, I restore him fourfold.”  This seemed to satisfy Jesus, who responded: “This day is salvation come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

    Both the Pharisee, and this second publican recounted the good things that they did—and they were, if fact, good things.  The second publican, Zachæus, is approved by our Lord, while the Pharisee is not.  The difference is that the Pharisee felt self-important and boasted about his wonderful deeds, while Zachæus was doing nothing more than explaining that he was really trying to follow God’s law, and that even though he wasn’t perfect, he had a few good things to demonstrate his good faith.

    Our Lord approved of both publicans—the one who merely admitted his sinfulness, and the second who could honestly say that he was trying to be good.  The first publican, our Lord said, “went down into his house justified.”  Of the second, He said: “This day is salvation come to this house.”  There is an important difference between justification and salvation.  Justification makes us capable of pleasing God and working out our salvation.  Salvation is the final reward of a just man’s good life on earth.  The first publican was justified by his faith and his humility;  the second was working to be saved by keeping God’s Law and by his good deeds.  We must go and do likewise—the “recipe” is very simple: mix faith, humility, the Commandments, and the works of Mercy, and God will exalt you over all who boast about how wonderful they are, and how much better they are than the next one.


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