In Saint Luke’s Gospel, we have the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It is one of Our Lord’s most incisive stories. The Pharisees, you remember, were the most observant of all the Jewish people of the time. They were devout; they knew all the rules and regulations (over 600 of them!) by which a devout Jew was to live, and they carried them out very carefully. The tax-collectors, on the other hand, were Jews of the time who had begun to collaborate with the occupying Roman authority. They collected taxes from the local people, sometimes by coercion and other forced methods, and turned the quotas over to the hated Romans, keeping for themselves whatever they could squeeze out of their own people above and beyond the Roman quotas. And, of course, they were hated by their own people for being traitors.
Now, in this story told by Jesus, a Pharisee and a tax-collector go to the temple to pray. Thus the highest and the lowest in the moral and social order find themselves in the sacred precincts at the same time. Their prayer, however, is very different. The self-righteous Pharisee thanks God that he is not like “the rest of humanity,” as he says, “greedy, dishonest, and adulterous.” Thus he paints all humankind with the same brush of condemnation and contempt. But the tax-collector stood in the back of the temple where he would be unnoticed and struck his breast in a gesture of self-condemnation. And he prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus tells us that the pompous, arrogant Pharisee did not go home justified, but the penitent tax-collector, so conscious of his own sins, did. And Jesus gives us the reason: those who humble themselves will be exalted, that is, raised high. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Pride is the mother of all sins; humility is the necessary ingredient of all virtues.
We tend to criticize others, to judge them, to condemn them, talk disparagingly about them. But, bearing this parable in mind, let us always be very conscious of the fact that those whom we criticize or condemn or disparage may be more pleasing in the eyes of God than we are, who are so pleasing in our own eyes, but perhaps not pleasing to God at all. Think of this often, my dear friends! Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.