30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached October 27, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Today’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector is meant for people who are serious about the practice of their faith. Jesus is not condemning people who are religious but warning them of the dangers of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Actually, human nature is such that you don’t have to be religious to be self-righteous and hypocritical.
As for the Pharisees, we will understand the Gospel better if we clear from our minds the prejudice we have against them. The Pharisees were the serious believers of their time and place. Nevertheless, Jesus often employs a caricature of the Pharisees in order to show how the life of faith can easily degenerate into pride and hypocrisy.
It might us if we remember that Jesus himself was neither a Pharisee nor a tax-Collector. Nevertheless, he chose a tax-collector as one of his Apostles and, after his resurrection, many Pharisees came to believe in him, including St. Paul.
Also, we should observe that since every society has its standards of ‘respectability’, every society has people, religious or not, who engage in what is now called ‘virtue-signaling’. This means doing all the ‘right things’ to win people’s respect and think well of oneself. Their actions are carefully calculated to send the message: “See, I am a good person. I do all the right things.” This is indeed the attitude of the Pharisee in the Gospel parable. Jesus said about ‘virtue- signaling’: Beware not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. (Mt 6:1)
Nevertheless, we should notice something positive about the Pharisee in the Gospel. He is, at least, using the law of Moses as his standard of respectability. He takes pride in things that are actually good and come from God. Nevertheless, his pride causes him to misunderstand and abuse the law of Moses.
In our American society today, however, there is a lot of virtue-signaling going on that uses a false and perverse standard of respectability.
Here in this parish, I hope we have a different standard, which is neither the standard of the law of Moses, nor the standard of the world, but the standard of Jesus Christ. Even with the standard of Jesus Christ we run the danger of engaging in the practice of ‘virtue-signaling’ to win the respect of others and think well of ourselves. If we do that, then we have not understood the teaching of Jesus Christ any more than the Pharisee understood the law of Moses.
St. Paul writes of those who being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God attempt to establish their own righteousness and do not submit to the righteousness of God. (cf. Rm
10:2) The righteousness that comes from God is the gift of sanctifying grace received in humble faith. This gift, a real sharing in God’s own life, which could never possibly merit or deserve in any way, makes us truly to become children of God.
If we turn our attention now to the tax-collector in the parable, it is important to know that in his time, people did not see the person, only the profession, and judged him negatively on that account. Just as the Pharisee boasts of things that make him appear well in the sight of men, the tax-collector is someone who appears badly in the sight of men. Nevertheless, even if his profession was odious, it was intrinsically sinful.
We can then see our contemporary ‘tax-collectors’ in everyone whose external appearance to men, even does not involve something that is necessarily sinful, makes them to be despised by others. Used car salesmen used to have something of that disreputable character; now maybe it is the repo man.
We need to remember the words of God to the prophet Samuel: Man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart. (1 Sam 16:7)
Jesus gives us a glimpse beyond the exterior, showing us the heart of a man who comes before God aware that he is, in the first place, a sinner. No one thinks well of him and so he is not trying to impress anyone. He knows his sins and might not be altogether free of them. He does not try to justify his sin. Instead, he presents himself before God in the truth of his situation and begs for mercy.
That is the true point of Jesus’ parable. Jesus is telling us that we actually need to be able to see ourselves in the position of the most despised sinner, seeking God’s mercy. In this way, the innocent Virgin, St. Therese of Lisieux, was able to identify with the repentant prostitute. St.
Francis of Assisi, for his part, sincerely declared that he was the worst of sinners. He was neither virtue-signaling, nor flaunting his vices. He was speaking from the deep awareness of his own unworthiness in the presence of God.
This is where we must begin with God and we must continually return to this recognition of our unworthiness. We must learn to present ourselves before God, without trying to impress anyone, recognizing the truth of who we are, both as creatures and as sinners, and so beg his mercy. This is the beginning of justification before God; this is how the life of God’s grace in us, often lying dormant in the routine of our life, comes awake. This is how we open our hearts to God. It is not a beginning that we leave behind and are done with, but the foundation of the temple that God wants to build in our hearts, a foundation that must always remain.
This is also where we are most truly equal: when we stand before God as sinners in need of salvation. Even the Virgin Mary, though she never in the least way stood before God as a sinner, always stood in complete dependence upon his salvation in Jesus Christ. She was profoundly conscious, more than anyone else, of her absolute dependence upon God.
It is not so much a matter of outward gestures, which we are capable of falsifying, as the inward disposition of the heart. The regular practice of confession is a powerful help to fostering the inward disposition of the heart.
Nevertheless, for all the falsity we are capable of introducing in our outward gestures, we need those gestures to help foster the interior attitude. We need those gestures precisely because we are made of body and soul. Indeed, we need a lot of work, a lot of practice to develop the attitude of true interior humility. If we think that we can cultivate the interior attitude of humility without outward gestures, we deceive ourselves.
We could perhaps translate Jesus final words in a more physical way as, Whoever raises himself up will be lowered, and whoever lowers himself will be raised up. That is why we kneel down to pray.
Both the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the parable went to the temple to pray. They both went to the right place. The Pharisee’s lack of humility was shown not just be his interior attitude, but his proud stance. The tax-collector’s humility is expressed outwardly by his standing at a distance, his lowered eyes, and beating his breast.
We come to the right place when we come to Mass and there is much in the Mass that can help us foster true interior humility.
In the first place, when we come to Mass the reality of God in Jesus Christ, and his mercy, the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, is present more than at any other place and time.
When we come to Mass, whether we take our place in front or in back, we must come and present ourselves before God with the attitude of the tax-collector in the Gospel. That means that we must start with our distance from God and let him lift us up to himself, rather than presuming upon our closeness to God.
We express that distance by the general confession of sin at the beginning of Mass, by kneeling during the consecration, and by the words, Lord, I am not worthy, before communion. That distance is also better expressed when we find ourselves before a true altar, with the priest facing the Cross, than before a mere table, with the priest facing the people.
The priest, precisely by his closeness to the altar and to the sacrifice, is in a situation of special danger. The priest could very easily forget the proper distance that is called ‘reverence’ and take possession of the Mass, as though it were his.
In any case, when we understand that the attitude of the tax-collector is the key to active and fruitful participation in the reality of the Mass, both for priest and for people, we will be free of the temptation to take possession of the Mass as ‘our own’. We will not be so concerned about the length of the Mass nor the quality of the homily; we will not be ready to criticize or complain, so long as the preaching is faithful to the teaching of the Church and the Mass is
celebrated according the mind of the Church expressed in the laws of the liturgy and the spirit of sacred Tradition.
Both the Pharisee and the tax-collector went up to the temple to pray. They both did what was right by going to the temple, but only the tax-collector had the right attitude. We must do what is right by coming to Mass on Sunday and bring with us the right attitude of humility displayed by the tax-collector. If we come to Mass willing to lower ourselves, then the Lord himself will truly lift us up and feed us with himself.