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Good Pharisees, bad Catholics, and the humble of heart

Our daily petition should be asking for the inestimable grace of being able to see ourselves as God sees us, especially when we approach Him in prayer.

Detail from "The Pharisee and the Publican" (1886-94) by James Tissot (WikiArt.org)

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (EF), August 1, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.

Today the Church puts before us a parable familiar to us from childhood – that of the Pharisee and the Publican. The better to understand this teaching of Our Lord, let’s review just whom these two characters represent.

For eight years now, we have heard Pope Francis condemn the “Pharisaism” or “Pharisees” he thinks he has discovered in the Church; this is a genuine papal “trigger,” which he uses against anyone who seems to hold the line on absolutes, you know, the “rigid” ones, apparently oblivious to the fact that “rigidity” can be found on the Left, as well as on the Right. Further, the Pope appears to be quite ignorant of the Pharisaic movement in the time of Christ (so much so that a world-renowned rabbi had to call him out on this). Pharisaism was a lay reform movement established in reaction to the corrupt Temple priesthood, desirous of worldly approval in preference to following God’s will and law. Without the Pharisees, it is no exaggeration to say that Judaism would have died by assimilation to the pagan culture.

Most importantly, the major positions of the Pharisees – resurrection of the body, the existence of angels, the importance of fasting and almsgiving, the importance of oral tradition (a magisterium, we could say) – were all positions of Jesus Himself. If that is so, why were the Pharisees so frequent a target of the Lord’s condemnations? For one simple reason: He accepted their theology but rejected their approach. One never finds Jesus in conflict with the Sadducees, whose theology was polar opposite of the Pharisees; He didn’t “waste” his time with them because they were just patently wrong. He confronts the Pharisees because their theology is on-target, and they are worth the effort to correct. It is significant that one of Jesus’ denunciations of the group warns His disciples, “Unless your holiness (righteousness) surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of God” (Mt 5:20). In other words, there was genuine holiness and righteousness among the Pharisees, but Our Lord’s followers needed to do and be better.

The word “publican” comes from the Latin publicanus, one who gathered taxes on behalf of the Roman Emperor. The Jews of Christ’s time in the Holy Land held these individuals in total disdain. While few Americans would express admiration for the IRS, very few of us would classify tax agents today with prostitutes and other major sinners. Why this visceral hostility, even hatred? For two reasons: First, the publicans were doing the dirty work of the occupying enemy, Rome; they were traitors of their own people. Secondly, they were not content with collecting what was owed (and maybe with a little “handler’s fee”); rather, they gouged and raped the populace with exorbitant charges. For instance, if Rome had assessed the province a tax of $10,000, the head publican would assess his subordinates $15,000; they, in turn, would work the system, so the poor tax-payers would end up coughing up $20,000. In sum, they were both traitors and thieves. As an aside, some of you may remember that in diebus illis, we Catholic school kids called those who went to the government schools, the so-called “public” schools, precisely, “publicans”!

Now, not all Pharisees were bad men; the New Testament holds up Nicodemus and Gamaliel as good men. Similarly, we learn of publicans like Matthew and Zacchaeus who gave up their hateful trade.

In our parable, the Pharisee and Publican are studies in contrast. The former is proud of his holiness (and let’s face it, he presents an impressive list of spiritual accomplishments), while the Publican realizes that the only way to go to confession is in humility.

The negative aspects of Pharisaism can rear their ugly visage in every age, religion and person. The one who boasts of his goodness to Almighty God forgets the Scripture that reminds us that even the just man sins seven times a day (see Proverbs 24:16). That famous author, Anonymous, says that when we pray, we should not be giving God instructions but reporting for duty!

The “good” Catholic, one is truly sincere, can fall into the trap of giving himself his spiritual report card: Daily rosary, check; daily Mass, check, monthly confession, check; Eucharistic adoration, check. And because he has checked off all the boxes, he – like the Pharisee we meet today – despises any and all who do not measure up to his standards of holiness. That person needs to see himself at least challenged, if not outright condemned, by Our Lord’s teaching today. The word “pharisee” comes from the Hebrew word that means “separate” or “set apart.” At root, then, Pharisaism is a form of elitism; it can be the elitism of one or the elitism of a group. The Gnostics of the early centuries of Christianity were the first elitists the Church had to confront, but the arrogance of elitism always finds a home in the Church – and we have ample evidence of it today: My spirituality is superior to yours; My way or the highway; I’m saved, but I’m not too sure about you. And in society-at-large, it looms large in the “cancel culture”: If you don’t think like me, you’re not only wrong; you’re downright evil.

There is also another manifestation of arrogance, and that is the arrogance of power: I can command you to conform to my will simply because I have the power. That has been on full display throughout the so-called pandemic: One mask, no mask, two masks; close down your shops and churches; socially distance six feet, socially distance three feet. The rationale for any of this: Because I say so. That abuse is on full display in the Church as well, and regrettably so, even at the highest levels. Have we not all witnessed ecclesiastical authorities act with reckless abandon and even cruelty in commanding what they have no right to command? These authority figures – whether in Church or State – need to learn the difference between power and authority. Power can be accorded someone or even commandeered; authority, on the other hand, is earned. As children, we always knew our parents were on the ropes when they ended an argument with: “Because I said so.” The argument from authority is the weakest of all.

And then there is another foolishness abroad in the past few decades; it teaches children: “You can be whatever you want to be. If you can conceive it, you can achieve.” While the motivation may be an attempt to inspire a child to greatness, because it does not correspond to reality, it also sets a child up for failure and terrible disappointment. When I got my only “C” in high school in chemistry, I knew I would never make it to science books alongside Lavoisier. The kid who can’t throw a football ten yards ought to realize he’ll never make it to the “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame.

The virtue of humility is grounded in reality; humility is truth. Interestingly, the word “humility” comes from the Latin word “humus,” which means “dirt” or “earth.” It is a reminder that we come from, yes, the dust of the earth, which should cause us to declare in honesty and humility: “God is God, and I am not.”

Listen to a few reflections of some sound spiritual writers.

Dom Prosper Guéranger says: “The more this virtue [humility] enables a man to feel his own weakness, the more, likewise, does it show him the power of God, who is ever ready to help them that call upon him.”

The Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen offers two thoughts. In his book, Victory Over Vice, he writes: “God’s instruments in the world are. . . only the humble. Reducing themselves to zero, they leave room for infinity. Whereas those who think themselves infinite, God leaves with their little zero.”

And in his monumental work, his Life of Christ, he observes:

Only two classes of people found the Babe: the shepherds and the Wise Men; the simple and the learned; those who knew that they knew nothing, and those who knew that they did not know everything.

He is never seen by the man of one book; never by the man who thinks he knows. Not even God can tell the proud anything! Only the humble can find God!

Every evening, the Church puts on our lips the inspired words of the Virgin of Nazareth: “. . . respexit humiliatem ancillae suae” (He has regarded the low estate, the humility, of his handmaiden). With what result? “. . . ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes” (henceforth all generations will call me blessed). What else? A reminder and a warning: “Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles” (He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, the humble).

Our daily petition should be asking for the inestimable grace of being able to see ourselves as God sees us, especially when we approach Him in prayer.

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, in one of his sermons, holds up the Publican for our emulation:

Now all of us are sinners, all of us have need to come to God as the Publican did; every one, if he does but search his heart, and watch his conduct, and try to do his duty, will find himself to be full of sins which provoke God’s wrath. I do not mean to say that all men are equally sinners; some are wilful sinners, and of them there is no hope, till they repent; others sin, but they try to avoid sinning, pray to God to make them better, and come to church to be made better; but all men are quite sinners enough to make it their duty to behave as the Publican. Every one ought to come into Church as the Publican did, to say in his heart, “Lord, I am not worthy to enter this sacred place; my only plea for coming is the merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour.”1

Or very simply: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine.”

Endnote:

1“Reverence in Worship,” PPS 8 – 1, 30 October 1836.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 208 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

15 Comments

  1. Fr Stravinskas perceives the need to identify the current heresy of good Pharisees who check all the boxes ensuring their presumption of faithfulness [and I add absolute conviction of salvation]. Heavy hitters Dom Prosper Guéranger Archbishop Sheen Cardinal Newman assure us of back pew publican humility, the sinner who acknowledges his sins and true humility. Bums, whores, scabs pathetic yet honest Sheen thought had better chance of surviving final judgment [Fr Stravinskas is well read]. Radical judgment in itself questionable, although undeniably those were the ones who flocked to hear Jesus. He gave them hope. Missing perhaps is the honest self effacing Modernist [there are however borderline modernists who fall into the class of the hopeful naive]. Sadly, I immediately picture the gaggling President clutching his rosary signing himself with the cross in public who is the hands down champion purveyor of Man’s greatest sins yet with some inscrutable slash of wisdom convinced he’s a good practicing Catholic who hates these sins but must respect the conscience of the public and the Party to advance democratic liberty, sacred and inviolable, beyond constraints. God must respect such immense dedication to this apex truth that defines our humanness. Even if due to unfortunate circumstance it sits well with Luciferian defiance to Him.

    • Gaggling doesn’t fit. I had something like garbled in mind. At any rate my erroneous criticism, perhaps unnecessarily made, brings to mind the wonderful balance the Apostle Paul achieved in justifiable criticism and humility. Paul also makes the significant admission of overreaction, other fallbacks and uses that as rationale to admit his weakness, even boast about it that the power of God may rest upon him. Priests should have that balance in speaking out, being realistic about our errors, and the humility to allow Christ to strengthen us. Paul also had the heart to express his love, quite unabashed to the difficult Corinthians, admonishing them gently, always leaving opportunity for return. That speaks of the finest form of humility. “Make room for us in your hearts!” (Cor 7:2). “Again Paul turns to speak of love, softening the harshness of his rebuke. For after convicting and reproaching them for not loving him as he had loved them. And he did not use the word love, but said, more appealingly, ‘Open your hearts to us’” (John Chrysostom Hom 14).

  2. Thank you, Father. Your words recall those of my FSSP parish priest which go something like: “Charity. Let us prayer for charity in our relationships and dealings with one another.”

    He “harps” us with that angelic message.

    When I’m made sad by my or my loved ones failing in charity, I fall back on “Blessed are they who mourn…” and then wonder if I’m too ‘righteous’ or whether I’m presumptious in hoping for more consolation than I deserve.

    Back to the drawing board. Thank you for your prayers and your life given to the priesthood.

  3. As a postscript, Fr Stravinskas implicitly raises for this writer the true goal for us all, unity. What might be the solution? Traditionalist and Modernist the authentically pious caught inbetween have as a major difference the Liturgical differences emanating from Vat II more TLM v Novus Ordo [most of us NO Men keep silent on this] now the divisive Traditionis Custodes Motu Proprio that guards tradition by eliminating it. What really should occur [or have occurred] was what Benedict XVI and his predecessor hoped for the gradual transference of what is best in the traditional to the new liturgical form. Traditionis amputates that possibility as if tradition were gangrene. What can bring two opposing sides together if not first the acknowledgment of our self assured hypocrisy, and the humble willingness to adapt? Publicans and Pharisees do have a common interest in this if we turn to Christ as its solvent.

    • I daresay many Catholics would sting if the NO were restricted or denied them because their pope saw those who preferred that form of worship as ‘divisive.’

    • Unity arises from and is given by Christ. This Pope has lost his moral authority to speak on it. Every Mass, whether TLM or NOM. is of infinite value. A Pope restricting the type and therefore the number of Masses, is denying God His glory.

      Unless there is some heresy the Pope has discerned within the Mass of the Ages??

      • Meiron every Mass has infinite value, reality that’s increased during my years moreso these days. Some of us find great enrichment in the new Mass if offered with each word intently living it offering oneself with Christ. The Novus Ordo has Latin translations that doesn’t contain the errors of the vernacular, such as, This is the cup of my blood the blood of the new and everlasting covenant which will be shed for you and for ‘all’ the Latin, Hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti qui pro vobis et pro ‘multis’ effundetur. The Latin as traditionally worded [Christ’s words in the Gospel] impresses us with the reality that not all will respond to Christ’s revelation and be saved. Certainly those of us who love the Mass as the center of our life whether Novus Ordo or not would be dismayed if it were taken away by an ill conceived seizure. And certainly these times are a test of wills either for Christ or not for Christ. That’s how deep this crisis has become. Unity is found in Christ when we adhere to him as a body bonded in his charitable love.

        • To blame Catholics who prefer EF as being divisive and calling them to adopt the charity of Christ in order that they may adapt to what some without moral authority would like? No.

          The failure to ‘adapt’ has been exemplified by those implementing the NOM with blatant disregard for specific guidelines and intent of the Vatican Council II document SC. Below is only one example. Fr. Fessio’s article details more.

          “D) Norms for adapting the Liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples

          “37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.”

          And what is the true and authentic spirit of the Sacrifice of the Mass? Is it the ‘spirit’ (Note that that spirit is not described as holy) of Vatican II or is it the Body and Blood of Christ given for man’s salvation? Who denies what to whom in the CT motu? It is unjust to deny the fruits of Christ to His children. One further example from SC follows:

          “38… Provisions shall also be made, WHEN REVISING THE LITURGICAL BOOKS, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that THE SUBSTANTIAL UNITY OF THE ROMAN RITE IS PRESERVED; AND THIS SHOULD BE BORNE IN MIND when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics.”

  4. Some of the spiritual meditations I have gained the most from were written by St. John Newman. A thoughtful and very spiritual man, whose writings are not to be missed. Many of his visual images are unforgettable. I recommend him highly. Many thanks to the author of this piece, Father Stravinskas, for touching on the reality of sin, and the common sin of pride specifically, about which we hear little to nothing at church. And bravo for speaking the truth about those politicians who have held us in slavery for a year and a half, using the boogeyman of a disease which is at best moderately dangerous as a club to beat us. In so doing they have gained the cooperation of our Bishops to moderate our Sunday services to fit secular expectations and demands. Thus showing the Bishops do indeed believe the body is more important than the soul. This must make Jesus weep. Thank you father, for your clarity in this article.

  5. P.S. For those Catholics who may have have missed the good news: Jesus suffered and died on the cross, and every Mass is performed in order to honor and commemorate for our salvation that act of love.

    Which would I prefer? Shall I rid myself of someone else’s idea of self-assured hypocrisy and adapt to a communal breakfast service whenever the pope demands, or should I continue to practice Catholicism as traditionally practiced?

    • What does that have to do with the homily? That same Gospel features in the lectionary of the Ordinary Form of the Mass as well.

      • In the Vatican II Mass lectionary, the Gospel this Sunday is on the Eucharist from John. As it was noted here recently in the old pre-Vatican II Mass lectionary the selection of readings cover only 1% of the OT and 14% of the NT whereas in the Vatican II Mass lectionary this has been expanded and enriched to 17% of the OT and 71% of the NT.

  6. Wonderful article with implications we should all be constantly reflecting on. Fascinating commentary as well but some of it is over my head, I must admit. It does bring to mind some anecdotal personal history which I tell without a motive, moral, and certainly not a plot. My mother’s grandfather started out life as a hotel keeper, one common trade associated with the word “publican” – keeper of a public house. His parents and all four of his grandparents were hotel keepers in small town Maine. A third generation Irish American he remained Catholic throughout his life, which was a challenge in Protestant, Yankee eastern Maine, especially as he married a prominent daughter of that tradition. In any event, I gather he was shy and not the gregarious extrovert his grandfathers were regionally famous for, so the hotel trade was just not for him. He ended up working for the IRS, which I am now learning has an even older association with the world “publican.” Not such a career change after all I guess. His son, my grandfather, ended up marrying a Swedish immigrant, who always boastfully presented herself as a supremely enlightened liberal and a Christian, but yet despised Catholics and Jews. Just the kind of hypocrisy one associates with the traditional sense of Pharisees I guess. So he fell away during his adult life but my mother righted the ship by converting back and marrying a good Irish (American) Catholic. (My grandmother didn’t come to the wedding btw, but she mellowed some over the years.) Now my grandfather did have the personality to be in a public business and had a successful office supply store for several years. Then the depression hit and he lost that. He ended up working for the IRS too. Guess I come from a long line of Pharisees and publicans.

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