Pride, that is, self-esteem ready to reject divinely-imposed, and therefore according to Eve’s mind, distasteful obedience, and ambition giving unjustified credence to the words of the serpent who is the Father of Lies -- was at the root of the Eve’s original sin before being compounded by that of Adam, too easily swayed by his wife’s example and persuasion. And so, the very first lesson given by the Serpent and so gladly learnt by Eve and ineptly adopted by Adam, was to distrust God; then, under the Liar’s aegis, they tried to grasp for themselves what they could not trust God to give them: likeness to God, as the serpent had promised Eve, “you will be like gods”.
We can say therefore, that lack of trust in God is the first and most truly serious manifestation of human pride: whether it be shown outwardly in aggressive ambition and self-assertion, or by self-esteem turned inwards, burrowing down to ever-deeper levels of the human psyche and stirring up the muddy waters of solicitude and anxiety about self, about ME. Pride is a fault-line in the human nature that we have received from Adam and Eve: men and women of all ages and all climes – be they important or non-entities, strong or weak, knowledgeable or ignorant, rich and successful or apparent failures – are susceptible to it and, should they yield themselves to its power, can be led to such a degree of self-assertion or self-love that might sour all vestiges of love for fellow-man in their life and alienate them irrevocably from the healing hand of God.
Our heavenly Father, however, is infinite in holiness, power, and goodness, and He wants to give us a share in His eternal life, beatitude, and glory. To achieve that end the Father sent His only-begotten Son to become One of us -- living and dying with us and for us, before rising as our heavenly Saviour -- through Whom the Father also endows us with His Holy Spirit to work with and within us throughout time, so that all peoples might come to the glorious destiny He has planned for them. Before such majestic goodness and compassion, human self-love is clearly shown in the horror of its sinfulness: for our arrogant pride will neither admit nor accept God’s supreme Lordship, whilst our anxious self-love cannot believe, and will not trust, in His infinite goodness.
Let us now observe how the Pharisee prays to so wonderful a God and Father:
God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.
Notice that after addressing God first, he then – immediately -- turns his gaze aside from God to concentrate his whole attention on HIMSELF: he mentions others but only to compare them most unfavourably with himself.
This Pharisee, obviously, is not praying to God so much as extolling his own spiritual excellence, by reciting his own ‘officially good’ deeds and showing his spiritual discernment by expressing his disdain for those around him. The few words he directs to God are merely ritualistic and conventional, the ‘politically correct’ language of a man of God such as he believes himself to be. You might say that his prayer has the right ‘material’ but develops the wrong ‘themes’; it is not a prayer thanking God P/personally for guiding, gifting, and enabling him to ‘fast twice a week’ and ‘give tithes of all he possesses’, such an approach might, indeed, have led him to have a certain understanding of and sympathy for the tax-collector standing next to him along with those other nicely parcelled-up and distinguished groups of sinners. Finally, notice how Jesus so very accurately and succinctly describes this man’s prayer:
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.
We should notice, however, that the Pharisee’s prayer betrays knowledge of God’s will which he intends to obey: he himself is not an extortioner, not an adulterer, and he tries to be and thinks he is, ‘just’ before God.
On the other hand, when speaking of the tax-collector at prayer, Jesus mentions only his humble gestures and words of self-accusation:
God, be merciful to me a sinner!
There, God is supremely important, and He is recognized as being merciful, Someone totally other than the suppliant now praying, who knows himself to be a sinner. His prayer betrays no knowledge of God like that of the religious Israelite and learned Pharisee; and as for himself, a professional tax-collector for the Roman occupiers, he is – generally speaking -- just a selfish, stuck-in-the-mud, too-wealthy, sinner. NEVERTHELESS, at this short time of prayer he is alone, before and -- unknown to himself – with God; and therefore, his prayer is a truly personal awareness, however vaguely felt and acknowledged, of his own sinfulness and God’s majestic holiness and ‘otherness’.
Unknown to him, centuries earlier, the Psalmist (Ps. 91:14) had written words perfectly applicable to the tax-collector’s prayer:
I will set him on high, because he has known My Name (that is, because he has known Who I am -- the all-holy God – and what I am -- infinitely merciful).
That the tax collector knew – existentially -- something of the reality of God’s Name, was shown by his present faith (unusual, since he wittingly obeyed no commands of God), and his uncharacteristic humility (since he was no regular Temple or synagogue worshipper) before God; and therefore Jesus, Who alone knew His Father in the fullness of His glory and goodness, went on to say:
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.
As for the Pharisee whose pride allowed him little more than a notional appreciation of God’s Name and glory, and who enjoyed comparing himself most favourably with others, Jesus went on to say :
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
People of God, whoever sets out for a distant destination must always keep their eyes fixed on some fixed object that establishes the right direction: looking at one’s feet, it would be impossible to arrive at the desired destination.
So too in the spiritual life, we have always to fix our mind and heart, our intention and our desire, on Jesus. Of course, it might be objected that he who does not look where he is putting his feet is asking for trouble; and there are some who would allow themselves to be convinced by such an argument and would feel encouraged to continue either worrying about themselves or else congratulating themselves for their imagined prudence. The great falsehood hidden in such attitudes is, of course, that it is not we who are going heavenward of ourselves, but rather God Who is guiding us: we attain His planned destination for us only if we follow the lead He gives us. As St. Paul said in our second reading:
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and bring me safe to His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen!
Jesus wished to impress this upon His disciples when He warned them of pressures to come that would, if they did not take care, lead them to worry overmuch about themselves:
You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak, for it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father Who speaks in you. (Matthew 10:18-21)
We all know that the apostle Paul suffered more than any of the apostles for Jesus, and the hearing of only a few of his sufferings and trials fills us with admiration for his steadfast proclamation of the Good News:
From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep. (2 Corinthians 11:24-25)
How did he survive such punishments and sufferings and still have the courage and strength to continue his witnessing to Christ? Listen to him:
By the grace of God I am what I am; but I laboured more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, Who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)
My dear people, it is not only necessary for our eternal salvation, but it is also so much happier and so much more fulfilling for us here on earth, to keep our mind and heart centred on Him Who is calling us onward and upward, to learn to delight in Him, to trust and thank Him at all times and in all things. There is no one happier than one who is grateful, there is none stronger than he who trusts in God.
Trust in God is absolutely essential for a Catholic and Christian life, for there can be no true love where trust is lacking. Trust in God is not, indeed, part of our fallen human nature, but it is a readily available gift from God, a gift we can ask for, a gift we are exhorted to work with. We need to pray constantly for greater trust in God, for a more instinctive and childlike reliance on Him, and we should also seek to back-up such prayers by resolute endeavours to turn aside from ourselves, through personal discipline of mind and heart. As trust grows it brings with it such a deep peace and quiet joy that one wonders how one could have been so foolish as to have relied on, or worried about, self so much before; moreover, with a deepening awareness of, and trust in, God one can more sincerely sympathize with others in their faults and failings, and also appreciate more surely and fully what reasons we have to be grateful to God for His great mercy and goodness to us in Jesus. People of God, for any human being, such unshakeable trust and gratitude constitute a fulfilment beyond anything this side of heaven.