The Pharisee in today’s Gospel was very proud of himself. He wasn’t even honest enough to say “At least I am not like most of these” but rather had convinced himself that he was better than everyone else – that he alone was righteous and everyone else was merely a wretched sinner. As though this comparison wasn’t enough, he went on to thank God that at least he wasn’t like the tax collector, boasting how he fasted twice a week and paid tithes on his whole income.
The problem with the Pharisee is not that he wasn’t trying to give thanks to God for that was clearly his intent, the problem is that his prayer was not a prayer at all. One would look in vain to see the Pharisee asking God for anything for clearly he believes he has it all.
In contrast, there is a tax collector who is standing far off at a distance. A tax collector who considered the lowest of the low, so much so that if there was a tax collector in your family, no one would want to marry your daughter. The tax collector in his humility stands far away from God and cries out “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Now the tax collector knows of his own faults and failings, he is not self-righteous like the Pharisee but rather has true self-knowledge. He knows of his own unworthiness to stand before God – therefore he stands off at a distance and doesn’t raise his eyes to heaven because he is unworthy to even look up to God. The tax collector beats his breast in atonement and because God sees the contrition of the tax collector, he tells us that it is he that goes home justified while the Pharisee does not.
The Pharisee praises himself for his greatness. He asks God for nothing for he believes that nothing more can be added to himself. He believes he is self-actualized and suffers from one of the greatest sins there is – Spiritual Pride. He believes that he alone has obtained righteousness. He is not like the pagans, for he comes to God to give thanks but he does so with a hardened heart and believes that he needs nothing from God. Why then does the tax collector go home justified but the Pharisee does not? The Lord himself tells us the answer – “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The message today is a clear one – take guard not to let pride be the vessel that leads you on the path to condemnation. None of us here are incapable of being tempted by pride and thinking that we know better than God and His Church. Remember it was the greatest of Angels, Lucifer, who in his pride and arrogance believed he knew better than God and for it he was cast into Hell for all eternity. We are not incapable of suffering the same fate if we persist in our pride and arrogance. We are all too often tempted in our pride to raise ourselves upon a pedestal and think ourselves, our thoughts and our ideas, so lofty that we may even believe “at least I’m not like everyone else.” We can even become modern day Pharisees thinking “I’m a better Catholic because I pray more than those others” or “I’m holier because I go to Mass more often” or even thinking one is more important because their “brand” of Catholicism is better than everyone else. Modern day Pharisees are all around us!
Spiritual pride is real and it is dangerous because a man elevates himself higher than what he really is. St. Augustine notes that pride is a special type of sin because it has a special object – it is an inordinate desire of one’s own excellence. Pride makes us subject to ourselves while humility makes us subject to God. The tax collector knew of his unworthiness and his inability to stand before God in righteousness. The fact of the matter is that real difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is not their stature in life, but rather that both were unworthy of standing before God but only the tax collector realized it. The Pharisee thought he had everything figured out but, in actuality, it was the tax collector who really did.
On the day of our judgment, may the Lord find us begging for his mercy rather like the tax collector rather than boasting of our prideful accomplishments like the Pharisee. Amen