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