23 October 2010


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lk 18:9-14

Our parable today is popular. Why? Because it has our favorite villain in the gospels: a Pharisee.
But, please, do not conclude that all Pharisees are enemies of Jesus. Nicodemus – a secret follower of Jesus – is an example of a good Pharisee.
The word “Pharisee” means “the separated ones”. They are separated from the rest, not ordinary, because of their very rigid interpretation and observance of even the minutest detail of the Mosaic Law. In the eyes of those around them, the Pharisees are very obedient to God. But how does God really see them?
In the parable of the gospel today, the privacy of his home is not enough for the Pharisee to contemplate on his moral excellence. He must go the temple and there recite to God a litany of his good deeds. While praying, he spies on a a tax collector – a public sinner. Whoever invented the expression “holier than Thou” must have this parable in mind.
A wise man said that when the world is unanimous in condemning someone, better watch out. No living person is so evil that he has not even a single grain of goodness in him. St. Augustin also said that “since God became human, we can be sure that in everything human we can find something of the divine.”
If we were lawyers, could we put up a defense in favor of the Pharisee in the gospel today? Would we find even, at least, a spark of goodness in him?
Yes, we would. There is, in fact, more than just a spark of goodness in this Pharisee. He fulfills his religious obligations, fasts more than what the Law requires, and gives generously in support of the temple. He is also not avaricious, not a double-crosser, and not a slave to the basic cravings of the human body. As far as our eyes can see, this Pharisee is a “living saint”.
If we think he is proud for enumerating his good deeds and good qualities, we are wrong. He is not talking to us. He is talking to God. He is not boasting, he is giving thanks to God. This Pharisee is giving credit where credit is due. And should we not all learn to be more thankful to God? If it were not for God’s help, we cannot do anything good. To thank God, because He helps us not to be bad, is a kind of prayer that truly pleases God.
But not even the best lawyer in the world can prove the innocence of this Pharisee. To begin with, it is Jesus Himself who accuses him and renders the guilty verdict. Thus, it is important for us to understand why this parable ends the way it does. What great sin is this Pharisee guilty of?
This Pharisee is not guilty of pride as he is guilty of self-righteousness. Through this parable, Jesus defines what self-righteousness really is. The self-righteous person is not simply the proud person. To boast of one’s virtues and good deeds is harmless vanity. The essence of self-righteousness is in holding others in contempt. Our gospel today begins with “Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.” The pride of the self-righteous person is always competitive. He does not only say “O, how good a person I am!” Rather, the self-righteous declares, “O, how good a person I am THAN YOU!” The Pharisee in our parable today thanks God because he claims to be different from the rest of twisted humanity, most especially the Publican who is a mere spitting distance away from him inside the temple. Does anyone have the right to judge his or her fellow human beings that way?
No one readily accepts his own self-righteousness. But many are too quick to judge others as self-righteous. Is there anyone here in this Mass who confesses to his own belittling of others, to his rash judging of others, to his prejudice of others? None. But that does not mean that there are no self-righteous among us.
Self-righteousness is an insidious sin. The person who quickly accuses others of self-righteousness may well be more guilty of the same sin. We need not appear at all like the puff-up Pharisee of the parable in the gospel today. This sin is rarely obvious. Anyone who rashly judges and belittles his neighbor is no different from the Pharisee of this parable. In our days, Pharisees are an extinct breed, but Pharisaism still exists today.
In Mt 7:1, Jesus warns us: “Judge not so that you may not be judged.” The Pharisee in the parable today might have witnessed the tax collector’s one thousand and one sins, but he does not see nor does he cares that while he judges the tax collector, the tax collector is actually reconciling with God.
“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” – this is the tax collector’s guilty plea before God. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” – this is all he can honestly tell God. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” – no explanations, no alibis, no beating around the bush – this is his prayer. Compared with the Pharisee’s litany of good deeds, this one sincere statement of the this tax collector seems to be nothing. But when they finished praying, it is the Publican, not the Pharisee, who goes home in good terms with God.
“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Is there anyone here who wants to add more to this plea?
We have come to worship God. Are there Pharisees and tax collectors among us?
When we are done praying, how will we go home?


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