Today’s gospel narrating the parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14) describes a key aspect of what Lenten renewal ought to be about.
Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else, ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.
This is a parable with a punch, told by the Lord in order to fight a disease. The malady about which he speaks is easy to catch but hard to heal. Its symptoms are unpleasant, often hidden, and deadly if untreated. Those infected by it become self-centred and self-righteous. Luke describes those so afflicted in these words: they ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’ (v. 9).
The parable highlights the tension between self-righteousness and the righteousness of God. The danger of all religious practice is that it can become an end in itself. Once this happens a cycle of self-congratulation sets in, which subtly denies the work of grace. The two men in the parable go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prays about himself. He is very conscious of his achievements, proud of the fact that he fasts twice a week and gives away one-tenth of his earnings. The purpose of his prayer is not to thank God for his grace but to elevate himself above others. The tax collector, meanwhile, can’t even lift his head. He is afraid and ashamed; his prayer is abject, needy and humble: ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ (v. 13).
We are left in no doubt about who is more pleasing to the Lord. Jesus’ affirmation of the tax collector’s disposition teaches us much about the interior life. The weakness of the Pharisee is his self-deception; the strength of the tax collector is his self-knowledge. The sin of the Pharisee is pride; the virtue of the tax collector is humility. Self-knowledge is a gift. It protects us from a false view of ourselves. We would do well to take on board Pope John Paul II’s keen insight into the human condition: ‘Humbly and realistically we need to admit that we are poor creatures, confused in our ideas, tempted to wrongdoing, frail and weak, constantly in need of inner strengthening and consolation.’
This rather sober assessment should not depress us — if it offends, it’s because we don’t appreciate the truth of our condition. The beauty of the tax collector is his humble acceptance of his state before God. A patient who accepts their diagnosis becomes pliable to the healing touch of the physician. A patient who rejects the diagnosis is harder to heal. (BIBLE ALIVE)
Heavenly Father, help me to understand my need and grant me a true knowledge of myself. Teach me to walk humbly before you.