Today’s Gospel reading gives us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (i.e. publican). Tax collectors were of course among the most hated people in ancient Israel. Think about how glad we are to hear from the IRS! In many cases, Jewish tax collectors were party to extorting the people as part of the Roman occupation. They were seen as collaborating with the enemy. Sometimes they were corrupt, double-dealing, skimmed money, etc. There would not be any favorable adjectives attributable to them, perhaps even from their mother. Still, Jesus says that the tax collector is justified in this case while the pious Pharisee is not. Why is this the case?
Jesus says that whoever exalts himself, as the Pharisee implicitly does, will be humbled. This man will be brought down to a lower state because he is presumed to have a high spiritual stature in virtue of himself. He has become a little god, looking down upon the rest of creation from his lofty state and passing quick and easy judgment. He thinks the mere outward act of his pious deeds is more than sufficient to place him above everyone else. He forgets that it is by God’s grace alone that he even takes a breath. I would even argue that forgetting is probably long buried under his ride. He does not even deign to consider his own shortcomings. Sometimes this can even happen to us.
Maybe we do a good deed. We help an old lady get her cat down from a tree branch. We feel good about ourselves! Then we walk down the street and think we are better than the person we see sitting on their porch with a cigarette and beer. We think we are better than the dad screaming at his kids or the teenager transfixed before a video game console. Woe to us! It is quite easy to get puffed up. I am not saying we should never feel good about ourselves. Nor is rebuking others in the right circumstance an inherently bad thing. Quite the contrary. But the genuine, lasting good and happiness we get is from having humility before God. There but for the grace of God go we. We are warned by the Lord Jesus from taking a haughty look down our noses at other people. We need to fight this move if it comes upon us. Let us continually keep at top of mind the grace God gives to each of us. Absolutely unmerited favor. That is what grace is. Getting what we do not in any way deserve.
Jesus says that if we humble ourselves, we will be exalted. It is the Lord Himself who will exalt us and lift us up, drawing us nearer to Him. On the contrary, if we lift ourselves up, it is the Lord who will humble us. Each of these moves is ultimately an act of love from God. God still loves the Pharisee as much as the tax collector. Each is called to repentance. Each has the opportunity to respond. God’s mercies are new each day. So, each day He gives to us, we can choose to respond and receive the grace given, and in turn, give it way to others.