30th. Sunday, Year (C)
(Sirach 35:12-14, 16-19; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14)
Jesus spoke this parable, St. Luke tells us, to some who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.
St. Luke might there be attacking the Pharisees whose public behaviour manifested, at times, an excessive self-confidence which led them to look down on others; he might also be thought to be implying that they wanted to show themselves righteous before men. Jesus Himself, however, spoke this parable not simply to attack but also to offer healing. Yet, for such healing to be effective it was necessary, first of all, for the evil to be clearly recognized (St. Luke’s words) if the medication offered (Jesus’ words) was to be appropriately welcomed. Moreover, Jesus would seem to have addressed the parable to at least some Pharisees who were wanting to be righteous before God, because the whole point of the parable is show them that they are not yet achieving what they purposed:
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (that is accepted by, acceptable to, God) rather than the other.
Jesus, recognized as a Rabbi, one come to teach rather than condemn, was saying in other words, if you want to be acceptable to God you are going about it the wrong way, for:
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
That was precisely where the typical Pharisee in the parable was getting things wrong.
God I thank You that I am not like the rest of humanity (like’ everyone else’, ‘other men’) greedy, dishonest, adulterers.
Undoubtedly, some of his contemporaries (even fellow Pharisees) were well-known money lovers, unjust (pseudo-religious) people, and even adulterers; yet others may, in times past, have been guilty of such behaviour … and what a picture that would paint of Jewish religious society in those days! Nevertheless, he could in no way rightly 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; but his basic pharisaic habit of comparing himself with other men (as Luke’s words make clear) would seem to have inevitably led him to find no one able to ‘hold a candle to himself’.
People of God, we must be absolutely clear about this: we stand alone before God; His relationship with us is unique in all its fullness, just as our human nature is a unique reflection (‘image and likeness’) of His divinity. In our Gospel parable the Pharisee was, in fact, afraid to stand on his own before God: he was not humble enough to be able to trust God’s merciful goodness, nor had his many devotions and personal sacrifices been able to help him learn to personally love the God he only sought to serve. As St. Paul elsewhere teaches, the Pharisee wanted to earn what he thought would be owed him by God; he could not humble himself or love God enough to hope for the Gift that God alone could and would give: His beloved Son made man, and His most holy Spirit of Love as our Advocate and Strength. And yet he knew well the teaching of the Psalmist (33:18s.):
Behold the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear Him, upon those who count on His mercy to deliver their soul from death.
But that salutary teaching was forgotten as he indulged his daily weakness of looking at his fellow Pharisees: who was showing himself best at doing what the Law demanded?
As regards the tax collector, he would not indeed have been found in any strict Pharisee’s circle of acquaintances, for he would, most certainly, 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 strict Pharisee. However, this particular tax-collector was behaving in a truly 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 deeply religious and uniquely repentant man. Our typical Pharisee, however, saw nothing other than the clothes of one whose ‘class’ 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: as extortionists, adulterers, and all those considered -- as a class -- to be unjust, especially tax-collectors before the Law.
It is really quite amazing that serious and sincerely religious men could have adopted 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; but in so doing he is already beginning to proclaim his virtues as his very own. He sees sinners, directly, as offenders against God; his own personal practice of virtue, however, does not cause him directly 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 ‘proper’ observance of certain precepts and ordinances rather than a personal commitment and response to God known and loved, then, gifts received can be ungratefully self-appropriated and used to exalt the recipient’s pride and superiority over others, instead of establishing his humility and gratitude before God. Moreover, when religion 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, as I mentioned last week – ‘proofs’ before men, ‘proofs’ proof against any fault-finding God Himself – further additions to a sum total of personal achievement, protection, and pride.
That was the danger threatening the Pharisee in Our Lord’s parable: and nothing could better recall him to true religion than the sight of a repentant tax-collector close by, and dead to all but God in the Temple.
For, there is only one sure proof of holiness: humble love for Jesus, and in Him, for the Father, by the Spirit. Holiness is not, in its essence, to be proved by miracles performed, nor won 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 and people -- has no true relevance here. ‘Pagan’ funerals today consist almost entirely of praise for the one who has died! Deeds done without needing any ‘grace’ from ‘God’, personality and charm now being celebrated as a free-standing tribute not needing the support of any prayers to ‘God’.
The Christian teaching and Catholic appreciation, however, is sublimely expressed by St. Paul, again writing to his church community in Corinth (1 Cor. 13:1-3,14):
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. Faith (in God), Hope (for God), Love (of God) remain, these three, but the greatest of these is Love!
Let us now listen to Our Blessed Lord Himself answering a 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 observe closely just how St. Paul himself rightly manifested that very spirit so badly distorted by the Pharisee in the Gospel:
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.
Here one might think that Paul – a former Pharisee of course -- was dangerously close to being like the Gospel 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 aspirations and their fulfilment:
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 (2 Timothy 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.