This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 18:9–14:
Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ 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.”
Occasionally we go to Mass on Saturday evening rather than Sunday when we have plans for the latter, and yesterday was one of those days. We have plans with our granddaughters that got postponed from a crummier-weather weekend to make our annual pilgrimage to a pumpkin patch, and thankfully our parish has the Saturday evening option.
During the Mass, our parish — like most others, I imagine — has a certain rhythm for the responses and the recitation of the Nicene Creed. We speak in unison for the most part, and everyone keeps up. Or almost everyone, anyway, and in this case one elderly voice was clearly having trouble keeping up. When it came time for the response to the readings, we’d say “Thanks be to God,” which was followed by a solitary ” … to God.”
We did the prayers of the faithful, responding to the lector with “Lord, hear our prayer,” and that was followed by “… our prayer.” The Nicene Creed had an almost continuous echo throughout it by this one voice, and by the time we got to the Lord’s Prayer, the pattern of the repetition was almost predictable.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
“Hallowed be thy name…”
” … thy name …”
I had already been in a distracted mood when I came into Mass anyway, having worked at a local event earlier in the day, and for some reason this really annoyed me. I thought to myself, How difficult is it to get in line with everyone else? Missing it a couple of times might just be a mistake, but being perpetually out of step seemed like an almost deliberate choice, even though it’s tough to imagine why anyone would choose to do it.
That’s when one of the meanings of this Gospel reading hit me right between the eyes. Just as the Pharisee scorned the tax collector (also called a publican in other versions) while both were at prayer, so too was I scorning this woman who was doing her best to keep up with the rest of us, even if she wasn’t succeeding. And this wasn’t even a sin on which my heart was judging her, but just my annoyance at hearing her fall behind and disrupt the rhythm of my own participation.
This put the parable Jesus tells in a completely new light for me. It is very, very easy to fall in love with your own sense of righteousness and despise others. One does not have to be a Pharisee to act pharisaical, it turns out, which is an easy thing to know intellectually but not at all easy to recognize when we ourselves fall into this trap.
And how often do we do this? How often do we sit in judgment of our fellow Christians on this very point, on the manner in which we come to worship? C.S. Lewis mentions this in the second chapter of The Screwtape Letters, in which the demon instructs the junior tempter that our state of being absolutely convinced of our own righteousness will obscure the fact that all of us in the pews are just as flawed and sinful as the others, including ourself. The patient “thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all,” Lewis has Screwtape advising. That sounds an awful lot like the Pharisee in this parable, only the Pharisee is a little more subtle in putting that attitude into a prayer of self-laudatory thanksgiving. That suggests that the problem is at least two thousand years old, if not much more ancient.
However, there is still more to this story. Jesus adds another level by using a Pharisee as one of the extremes in His parable. The Pharisees were the leadership caste at this time, the ascendent religious power that ended up having Jesus killed in order to protect their claim to temple authority. Why choose a Pharisee for this lesson rather than, say, a wealthy man or a landowner, both of which Jesus often used for his parables?
Jesus wants to teach a lesson to and about leadership in this case. If the flock has gone astray, whose responsibility is that? This Pharisee simply assumes that his own righteousness has been assured and that no one else’s matters, or worse yet, that others exist to highlight his own worthiness. What has the Pharisee done to help the tax collector become more righteous? Does the man’s struggles touch his heart at all, as a self-appointed leader if not just as another child of God? The Pharisee seems not only content to leave this brother behind but to use him to puff up the Pharisee’s argument for his own glory.
We cannot make the journey to Heaven by trampling over our brothers and sisters. While each of us is ultimately responsible for our own souls, we have a responsibility to assist each other along the journey. That responsibility comes directly from our baptism into the Church as its priests, prophets, and kings. When one of our brothers and sisters stumble or fall behind, the kindness of helping them catch up costs us nothing except our own sense of conceit and rank, and perhaps a momentary disruption to a rhythm that matters much less than we think it might.
In today’s second reading St. Paul writes in his famous valediction to Timothy. “I have competed well,” St. Paul declares,” I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” We are not racing against each other, but together we are all journeying to the Lord. Let’s make sure to help those struggling along the way rather than brag about who’s in the lead or who’s keeping pace with the pack.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Pharisee and the publican” by Barent Fabritius, 1661. On display at the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.