30th Sunday OT Year C:
A couple of weeks ago we heard the story of the 10 lepers. If you remember Jesus healed all 10 lepers, but only one returned to thank God. The point of that story is conversion. Christ comes to heal us, we return and give thanks. A story like that one is easy for us to accept. We think of leprosy as an image for sinfulness. Christ can heal sinfulness and help sinners on the way to conversion. Today's gospel is more unsettling. This passage is not directed at the "sinners," it is directed at the "saints."
The first thing to remember when we contemplate this passage is the objective state of things. As an impartial observer, which person would we rather be? Jesus carefully chose his examples today. The Pharisee does everything correctly. First, he avoids sin: he does not commit adultery, he is neither greedy nor dishonest. Second, he does acts of virtue: he fasts and tithes. We should not construe the parable to mean that these things are bad. They are not. In many ways, the Pharisee is giving us a model to follow. It is good to fast, tithe, and avoid sins. On the other hand, the tax collector is an image of the grievous sinner. Tax collectors were famous for their dishonesty. So, Jesus is certainly not condoning dishonesty and sinfulness. Jesus is certainly not saying that sin is ok.
If that is not the point of the parable, what is? We just looked at the objective state of things: one man committed acts of virtue, one vices. What about the subjective state of things? Let's begin with the tax collector: what is going on inside of him? O God, be merciful to me a sinner. His disposition is one of supplication: he is begging mercy from God. Also, his is a humble disposition: he was in the back of the temple and would not even raise his eyes to heaven. (As a brief aside, this is why Catholics always sit in the last pews…) From an objective standpoint he is certainly a sinner; but, from a subjective point of view there is hope for him. He has that which is necessary to grow closer to God: humility and supplication, which is why the book of Sirach says that the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds and goes straight to heaven. Humility and supplication are essential for a relationship with God. What about the Pharisee? Objectively he is doing everything well. Subjectively, he is a mess. Listen again to how Jesus introduces the prayer: "spoke this prayer to himself." Despite all his good actions, the Pharisee is not in communion with God: he spoke the prayer to himself. There is not a hint of supplication in the prayer of the Pharisee, the whole point of his prayer is self-congratulation. There is certainly no humility: he took up his place and called attention to how much better he was than the rest of humanity.
So Jesus is not saying that it is better to be a huge sinner. What he is saying is that everything we do must be directed toward having a relationship with God. Our actions can certainly lead us away from this relationship, which is why it is so important to grow in virtue. But, our external actions alone do not guarantee a healthy relationship with God. In fact, they can be for us a source of pride, which leads us away from God. No, what is essential is to develop a relationship with God, which is predicated on humility and supplication. This internal disposition allows for conversion, allows for a healthy relationship with God.
How can we be sure we maintain our humility? I mean the more we try to live a life of holiness the easier it is to fall into the trap of the Pharisee's pride. Let's look to St. Paul: I am being poured out like a libation. This is a beautiful image for Christian life: we should always be poured out. If we are always pouring ourselves out in prayer, pouring ourselves out in service of our families and community, then it is hard to fall into the kind of pride that can cut us off from God.
Where can we find another example where in great humility someone pours himself out for the good of others? Oh… how about the Holy Eucharist?