Detail from "The Pharisee and the Publican" by James Tissot (1886)
Ps 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
2 Tm 3:14-4:2
when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? "
and challenging question concluded last week’s Gospel reading, the
parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge. It is worth repeating
here, first, because it is a question for each of us to contemplate on a
regular basis and, secondly, because today’s Gospel reading is both an
explanation of the question and an exhortation to authentic faith.
asked the question, Jesus then told a parable specifically addressed
“to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised
everyone else.” There is, in other words, a false righteousness and a
true righteousness. The former is a product of our own making, based in
the belief that we can make the rules and then fulfill them perfectly on
our own. This usually involves external actions, especially those deeds
that draw positive attention to ourselves, for our own sake.
of course, is what the Pharisee does in going up to the temple and
taking “up his position”, that is, a position of prominence. However, we
should be careful to not simply write off the Pharisee as an arrogant
hypocrite; we should be mindful that his fasting and tithing required
real and substantial effort. In fact, as biblical scholar Joachim
Jeremias notes, “To its first hearers the parable must have seemed
shocking and inconceivable”, precisely because the Pharisee’s prayer was
the sort of prayer a Phariseea defender and interpreter of the
Lawwould be expected to utter. It was the norm, and as such Jesus’
criticism of it was likely startling to many of his listeners.
is the case in many parables, Jesus purposefully created a strong
contrast between two very different groups or individuals. His point was
not to say that all Pharisees were alike. The portrayal of the
Pharisees in the Gospels is far more nuanced and varied than is often
admitted: Nicodemus came to visit Jesus in secret (Jn. 3:1-5) and other
Pharisees were clearly interested in learning from Jesus (cf. Lk.
7:36-50; 14:1-6). We are used to hearing of how hypocritical and
disingenuous were the Pharisees, but that perception was hardly
widespread in first century Judaism.
In a related way, it would
have been rather strange to hear of a repentant, humbled tax collector,
for tax collectors were widely reviled for being corrupt, greedy, and
ruthless men who put allegiance to the Roman empire ahead of any other
concern. Yet the tax collector “stood off at a distance” and would not
even raise his eyes to heaven, a sign of his clear recognition of sin
and unworthiness before God. “You see him abstaining from all boldness
to speech,” observed St. Cyril of Alexandria, “He seems devoid of the
right to speak and beaten down by the scorn of conscience. … You also
see that he accuses his own depravity by his external manner.”
tax collector’s prayer, it appears, was silent; he knew he was deadly
ill with mortal sin and in desperate need of a divine physician. He was,
without a doubt, the very thing the Pharisee believed him to be: greedy
and dishonest and everything else. But rather than mention, like the
Pharisee, what he has done, the tax collector simply begs for mercy
while stating directly who and what he isa sinner. Perhaps he was
familiar with the great Psalm of David, which states, “My sacrifice,
God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart”
Authentic righteousness and holiness are gifts.
“The sinner is justified,” taught St. Thomas Aquinas, “by God moving him
to righteousness…” Humility is necessary, for humility is the
recognition of who we are in the light of God’s holiness. “Never place
yourself above anyone,” warned St. Basil the Great, “not even great
sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many terrible
transgressions.” God is the God of all, but he is the Savior of the
humble and contrite.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the October 24, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor