Jesus spoke this parable, we are told, to some who were:
Convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.
The evangelist, St. Luke, might be attacking the Pharisees whose public behaviour manifested an excessive self-confidence which led them to look down on others; he might also be thought to imply that they wanted to show themselves righteous before men. Jesus, however, spoke this parable not to attack but to offer healing, and for such healing to be effectively received it was necessary for the wrong to be recognized and for the medication be rightly applied. Moreover, Jesus would seem to have addressed the parable to Pharisees who were, indeed, wanting to be righteous before God, because the whole point of the parable is show that they are not actually achieving what they wanted:
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (that is accepted by, acceptable to, God) rather than the other.
Jesus, Who was recognized as a Rabbi, that is, a teacher, was saying, in other words, if you want to be acceptable to, righteous before, God, you are going about it the wrong way; look at the tax-collector, and learn this from me:
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
So where was the Pharisee in the parable getting things wrong?
God I thank You that I am not like other men -- greedy, dishonest, adulterers.
No doubt some of his contemporaries were well-known money lovers, unjust (pseudo-religious) people, and, indeed, adulterers; others, perhaps even a notable proportion of them, may, at times, have been guilty of such behaviour … and what a picture that would be of Jewish religious society in those days! … yet he could in no way claim that all his contemporaries were like that. If he had simply said ‘that I am not like some other men’, or even perhaps ‘many other men’ he might have been speaking truly.
As regards the tax collector, he would not have been found in the circle of acquaintances of a strict Pharisee, and he would indeed have been reckoned among the greedy extortioners (exacting excessive taxes) and the unjust (knowing and caring nothing of the Law) by most Jews of those days, let alone by a Pharisee. However, this particular tax-collector was behaving in a most unusual way: he was openly and, most humbly, praying in the Temple: in that regard, although his dress bespoke a tax-collector, his actions were those of a religious man. Our Pharisee, however, saw nothing other than the clothes of one he despised.
Now, that would seem to have been a characteristic trait of the Pharisees in general at that time: regarding all others with potential disdain, especially tax-collectors, extortioners, adulterers, and all those unjust before the Law!
It is really quite amazing to think that serious and sincerely religious men could have such a blanket attitude! What was at the back of it all? Well, Jesus would seem to be emphasizing, highlighting, in order to bring into the open, an attitude that was, to a large extent, endemic in the Pharisaic observance of the Law:
I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.
Notice, our Pharisee does not directly thank God for his virtuous practices: he thanks God that he is not like others whom he disdains; and then he proclaims his virtues as his own. He sees sinners, directly, as offenders against God, and also against his own religious sentiments; his personal virtues do not, however, directly, cause him to raise his mind and heart in gratitude to God.
This pharisaic (sic!) tendency presents a perennial danger, People of God, for committed individuals of all persuasions; indeed, in early Christianity, we find St. Paul seeking to root it out when it began to show its head in the Corinthian church he had founded:
Who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor. 4:7)
God’s gifts are given, generally speaking, to be used to further God’s purposes in the world around. They are also given to draw the recipient closer to God: for gratitude felt should be expressed to God, personally; and, in that way, should lead to closer personal relationship with God, to a deeper appreciation of, and responsiveness to, Him.
When, however, religious practice becomes merely the external observance of certain precepts and ordinances rather than a personal commitment and response to God known and loved, then, gifts received can be ungratefully appropriated and used to exalt the recipient’s pride and superiority over others, instead of establishing his humility and bolstering his gratitude to God. Moreover, when religion thus becomes cold and impersonal, deeds, even good deeds become worthless before God, being done not out of love for Him, the all Holy One, but as claims to personal holiness, further additions to a sum total of personal achievement and pride.
That was the state of the Pharisee in Our Lord’s parable: and nothing could better recall him to true religion than the sight of a repentant tax-collector near by, and dead to all but God in the Temple.
For, there is only one sure proof of holiness: love for Jesus, and in Him, for the Father, by the Spirit. Holiness is not, in its essence, proven by miracles performed, nor by good deeds done, prayers said, pilgrimages made, money given, or indulgences gained; and of course, worldly reputation, the approval of authorities, or popularity among peers, have no true relevance here. All of these can indeed, under the right conditions, be indications of some measure of holiness; but love alone is the authentic and certain criterion of that God-given holiness which is charity.
This teaching is sublimely expressed by St. Paul, again writing to his church community in Corinth:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-4)
Let us now listen to Our Lord answering the question once put to Him in the Gospel by a Scribe of pharisaic persuasion:
“Which is the first commandment of all?" Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is: Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-33)
And let us turn back to our readings for today and see how St. Paul himself manifested that very spirit so badly distorted by the Pharisee in the Gospel parable:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.
At that point one might think that Paul was dangerously close to being like the Pharisee counting up personal items of merit. But notice how he continues, for Paul was not one to think his righteousness to be his own, personal, achievement; nor that he was alone among men in his endeavours and in his success:
…. There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearance.
Finally, hear and admire his total humility and childlike trust before God when, fully aware of his imminent execution, he refers to his life’s achievements as having been done in him and through him by God (2Tim. 4:17-18):
The Lord stood by me and lent me strength, so that I might be His instrument in making the full proclamation of the gospel for the whole pagan world to hear; and thus I was rescued from the lion’s jaws. The Lord will rescue me from every attempt to do me harm, and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. Glory to Him for ever and ever! Amen.