The Gospel reading gives us a short parable from the Lord with a powerful punch. The pharisee came to the temple and prayed, “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like the rest of humanity especially that tax-collector back there.” It’s an unusual parable with a boomerang effect because, on hearing this parable, we all probably thought to ourselves, “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like the pharisee in the parable.” And by saying that, we are!
For us, the word ‘pharisee’ is almost synonymous with hypocrisy. But there were good pharisees in Jesus’ time. The pharisees were laymen who studied the law and were in charge of local synagogues where they would gather for what we today would call the ‘Liturgy of the Word.’ For example, the law said no work on the Sabbath. They began to define what is/is not work. A lawyers delight. Pharisees were popular.
What went wrong? It would seem that by the time of Christ, the pharisees had become so pleased with what they had accomplished, and so disdainful of anyone who was not as noble and effective as were they, that they had lost sight of their own basic values. If pharisees were considered to be Holy men, tax-collectors worked for Rome, the occupying power, and were considered traitors and sinners.
And so, to the parable, the pharisee and the tax-collector pray in the temple. The tax collector is the one who is forgiven, not the pharisee. What was wrong with the pharisee’s prayer?
Well, there is no sense of the need for forgiveness, no sense of a distance he has yet to go spiritually in his life. His prayer is a litany of all the good he has done. He comes to the temple to tell God all about his fidelity to his religious obligations. “I fast, I contribute…unlike the tax-collector.” Meanwhile the tax-collector prayed, “Lord, I am a sinner.”
What the pharisee did in his life was good. But he compared himself not with the holiness of God which he was called to imitate, but to the tax-collector. He looked around smugly, not within. Instead of striving toward living in the image of God, he compares himself to another human being.
We can do that as well when we say, “Thank you, Lord, that I am a faithful Catholic, unlike some people I know.” “Thank you, Lord, that I don’t gossip, unlike some people I know.” “Thank you, Lord, that I don’t commit adultery, unlike some people I know.”
In other words, we stand before God not in need of more of his Grace, not appreciating how far we have yet to go, but reflecting on how much better we are than others. We can always find people around compared to whom we are morally superior in some way. Comparing ourselves to them, we can end up smug and self-satisfied.
When we look at ourselves in the light of Christ and his readiness to forgive, his obedience to the Father, then we see a different picture. Our conclusion that we are better than another person leads to a spiritual dead-end.
It is so important that each one of us strive to imitate Christ and not settle into a spiritual arrogance or spiritual complacency that comes from comparing ourselves only to others.
How do we pray? Do we thank God that we are not as bad as others we know and therefore leave the Church unchanged? Or do we look at the huge love of Jesus and realise that we fall short and try once more to show his kind of fidelity. His obedience. His love in our life?
In the evening of our life, we will all be judged not on whether we are better than others but on how much we resemble Jesus Christ.
In Jesus’ parable, two people entered the temple that afternoon. The pharisee left the temple that day the same way he came in, unchanged. The tax-collector left justified because he didn’t look around, but looked within. He saw how far he had yet to go in his spiritual life, by doing that, at that moment, he in fact moved closer to God.