Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Jesus met sinners of all kinds during his public ministry. There is not a single record of a harsh word spoken by him to any of them. However, there was one group, and only one, against whom he uttered condemnation and for whom he foretold an unhappy ending. These were the Pharisees. In Matthew 23, the whole chapter is devoted to Jesus’ condemnation of them. It contains eight “woes” which he Jesus may surprise us, but knowing as he did that pride, the first and basic sin of mankind and the root of all other evil in the world, was no ingrained in their very hearts, that they could never seek forgiveness, he stated nothing but the truth concerning them or to them.
In today’s parable which he addressed to the Pharisees themselves, he tells them once more where their pride will lead them. They will be excluded from the kingdom of God, because they will not admit or repent of their pride and their lack of charity. Instead of thanking God for the many gifts he had given them, they almost demanded thanks from God for being such pious people. They had virtues. They avoided serious injustices. They did not commit adultery. They fasted often. They paid all their temple dues, but it was all done, not for the honour and glory of God, but for their own honour and glory. They told the world about it. They demanded the first places in the synagogs, and special marks of reverence on the streets. They had to be called “masters” as they claimed to represent and interpret Moses to the ordinary people.
One thing that we can learn from this sad story of the Pharisees is that, while God approves of no sin, his mercy and his forgiveness s available for all sinners except the proud. It is not that God cannot or will not forgive the sin of pride but that the proud man will not ask for God’s forgiveness.
We must all be on our guard against this insidious and destructive vice. It is insidious because it can grow in us almost without our knowing it, and once it has taken root it is difficult to eradicate. It is destructive because it spoils every other virtue we practice and every good work we do. Charity, or brotherly love, cannot flourish in a proud heart, for a proud heart is so full of self that it has no room for others. No true love of God can exist in a proud heart, for even the very acts of religion which a proud man performs, are done for the motive of self-glory and not for the glory of God. The Pharisee in the parable proves that fact. He boasted of his good works.
A few simple straight questions can tell us whether or not we are proud. Do we like others to see and hear of our good works, or do we prefer to do them in secret? Do we give as generously to charitable causes when no lit of benefactors is published? Do we willingly take part among the rank and file in parish activities or do we feel offended if we are not the leaders? Do we criticize offhand those who are not all they should be, or do we thank God that we were saved from similar temptation? Do we always try to find an excuse for the failings of others or have we excuses for our own faults only? God forbid that any on in this congregation should be suffering from this, the worst of all vices. If anyone recognizes that he is, let him pray to God from the bottom of his heart for the opposite virtue of humility, and look for every possible occasion to practice it.
Let us all remember the two men praying in the temple. One was full of himself and boasted to God and to all present, of his many good works. The other just humbly beat his breast and asked for mercy – he had nothing to boast of. Yet, he left the temple forgiven, the other returned home a worse sinner than when he had entered the temple. Amen