THEME: Where did this Pharisee go wrong?

BY: Fr. Anthony O. Ezeaputa, MA.



The gospel reading for today (Luke 18:9–14) is a parable about people who are so sure of their saintly life because they are faithful to their religious practices and look down on others, especially those who are not yet living up to their expected spiritual standards. Jesus draws a comparison between first-century Pharisees and tax collectors to show that God is the source of our holiness and that our religious rituals are merely a route to God. As a result, our attitude must be to acknowledge that without God’s grace, we are nothing, and this must lead us to humble ourselves before God.

The Pharisees were laypeople who dedicated themselves to trying to keep God’s law as perfectly as they could. It should not come as a surprise that they were often accused of being legalistic and hypocritical due to their devotion to the law and religious practices. They had their own set of religious beliefs and practiced their form of Judaism in public—because they wanted to extend worship beyond the temple. St. Paul, for instance, was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Jesus had some followers from among the Pharisees, like Nicodemus (John 3:2).

The tax collectors were seen as thieves and traitors to their own people because they worked for the Roman government, which held Israel in its power and required that taxes be sent annually to Rome. The tax collectors collected what would have been the Roman tax and added to this tax an additional tax, which was their salary. They paid themselves well by collecting enough money for a relatively comfortable lifestyle. As a result, they were hated and despised by their fellow Jews (Matthew 18:17).

In the parable, Jesus says that two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, went up to the temple area to pray. This Pharisee began by thanking God that he was not like the rest of humanity, who were greedy, dishonest, and adulterous, or even like the tax collector there with him. The pharisee ended his prayer by talking about the good things he does, like fasting twice a week and giving tithes on everything he earns.

But the tax collector realized he didn’t have much to be proud of. He stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his chest, which is a Jewish expression of repentance, and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Historically, this Pharisee would have been thought of by the original audience of this parable as the good man. After all, he kept the law, observed religious practices, and encouraged others to do the same. The tax collector would be considered the bad man. He works for a foreign government and exploits his fellow Jews. However, Jesus revised that order and concluded that the despised tax collector, not the seemingly faithful pharisee, was justified. ” I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted,” (Luke 18:14) he said. So where did this pharisee go wrong?

This Pharisee was arrogant, prideful, and guilty of judging others: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). But the tax collector was focused on his own need for mercy and redemption, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

This Pharisee forgot that humility is the foundation of spiritual life and prayer. It is only through the growth in humility that we measure our progress in spiritual life. As a result, the spiritual journey begins with knowing that God is the source of our holiness and sympathizing with those who have not reached our stage in the spiritual life. The Pharisee was not humble nor holy, but arrogant.

The Pharisee sinned against the First Commandment, which states, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus says that the Pharisee assumed his place and prayed to himself, not to God: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity” (Luke 18:11). Therefore, he made himself a god and prayed to himself. “The first commandment forbids honoring gods other than the one Lord who has revealed himself to his people” (Catechism, 2110). But the tax collector prayed to God, saying, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He recognized that God is God, and he was nothing.

Furthermore, the pharisee already saw himself as a saint because of all the good things he did, like fasting twice a week and giving tithes on everything he earned. But the tax collector was humble by beating his chest. He recognized that he was not a saint but a sinner in need of the mercy of God and a saint in the making.

The good things that this pharisee does are only a help; a disposition; a means, though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection and do not mean holiness or perfection. Asceticism, mortification, and other spiritual disciplines are different efforts to attain true perfection.

The questions for meditation today are: Are you like the Pharisee, praying to yourself while focusing on everyone else? Are you like the tax collector, who acknowledges his lowliness and nothingness and focuses on God’s mercy? Are you like the pharisee, who is so full of himself that he looks down on others, or are you like the tax collector, who recognizes his own emptiness and need for God?

Today, let us remember that it is only by God’s grace that we have made so much progress in our spiritual life, keeping the commandments or doing good works. May this awareness lead us to humility and to declare, like Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (15:10), “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.” We need God’s saving love and grace, for only Jesus is our Savior. Have a fantastic Sunday.

Fr. Anthony O. Ezeaputa, MA.
Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
October 23, 2022

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