Assuming you are an employer; to whom of these two applicants will you offer the job? Applicant “A” is highly distinguished, he is not greedy, he is honest, he is very religious, and he is well respected. Applicant “B” has only two items to show on his résumé; he is a sinner, and he knows that he is a sinner. I think any serious employer is likely to offer the job to Applicant “A.” Surprisingly, in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus gives the job to Applicant “B.”
Let us take note of some important points here. Jesus does not condemn the Pharisee for his good deeds. The passage does not say that the Pharisee is lying about his good deeds. The Pharisee gets it all wrong because he locates the source of the goodness in himself. He actually appears to have no need of God. He only mentions “God” at the beginning of the prayer just to get God’s attention, after which he begins his self-praise. His case is like that of a person who receives an invitation to a banquet and decides to eat to his fill from his home shortly before the banquet. The Pharisee goes to God full of himself, so there is no space for God to add anything. For the Tax collector, Jesus does not in any way approve of his sins. Jesus only commends the fact that the Tax Collector exhibits the right attitude before God. He comes to God empty of himself so that God may fill him up. The Tax Collector brings the only thing he has, his sins in exchange for God’s mercy.
There is nothing we offer to God that was not first given to us by God as a gift. The only thing we can offer to God that we did not get from God are our sins. The Tax Collector comes with an attitude of humility. He has no need to keep away from the others, or to separate himself from them. The English word humility as we noted a few Sundays ago is etymologically related to the word humus. So, the humble one is the one who is grounded; the one who knows that he comes from the earth and will return to the earth; the one who knows that every human being is connected to the same earth and as such has no need to brag about some individual accidental qualities. It makes sense then to see the Tax Collector not daring to look up but down to remind himself of the earth. The Pharisee on the other hand separated himself from others. That should not be surprising as the meaning of Pharisee is “separate”.
Having heard the conclusion of the parable, many of us would prefer to be the Tax Collector. But let us examine ourselves a little. When was the last time you went to confession? In case you were at confession last night, what attitude did you carry along? Did you confess like this: “Bless me Father for I have sinned; Father I am a sinner, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t do any of the very bad stuffs. I don’t steal, I don’t kill, I don’t do drugs…umm, the only bad thing I can remember is that I yelled at my wife. But it was only once. And that was because she cursed me FIVE times.” The confessional is not a place you go to defend yourself or accuse others. You sincerely acknowledge your sins and open yourself to God’s mercy.
Another way we can act like the Pharisee is in our prayer of thanksgiving. Sometimes we find it difficult to thank God without bringing others into the thanksgiving. We say things like, thank God we live on the West Coast where it does not snow like on the East Coast; thank God our city is not as violent as others; thank God we are good people, not like the bad people who are not in Church. It is ok to thank God but don’t make it look like God has favored you against other people. Don’t thank God in a way that makes it look like it is entirely your making that you are who, what and where you are.
The third area we can act like the Pharisee is in the area of what C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield refer to as “Chronological Snobbery.” This is the argument that the present generation is better than the earlier generations in terms of thinking, art, science, technology etc. We look back in history and we laugh at our ancestors because we feel we are better than them. Are we really more advanced than our ancestors? An unknown author has the following to share in this regard:
We have bigger houses but smaller families; fancier houses, but broken homes; more conveniences but less time; we have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicines, but less healthiness; we’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We’ve built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communications; we have become long on quantity, but short on quality. [More smart phones and more dumb heads]. These times are times of fast foods; but slow digestion; tall man but short character; steep profits but shallow relationships. It is time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.
The challenge today is for us to avoid comparisons and seek oneness with our incomparable God. In today’s Prayer over the Offering, we shall pray that whatever we do in the service of the Lord, may be directed “above all” to the glory of the same Lord, who is the source of all good things. My dearly beloved in Christ, the tax collector went home full of God because he came empty of himself. Let us pray to God to help us empty ourselves of ourselves that we may be full of God until we come to see God face to face, through Christ our Lord. Amen.