The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector has a deep meaning for our life. At first, we might assume that the story is about a good guy and a bad guy. Yet, in essence, they are both good guys.
However, in time of war, during football season, at election time we are all tempted to think: “Why can’t everyone be like we are? Why can’t others be just like us?” An age-old dilemma—if God had made everyone just like us, there would be no problems in the world. The thought comes from the root of all evil, pride. The sin of self-righteousness has caused discrimination riots, murder, family violence. The Pharisee’s attitude describes most of the political commercials on T.V.—from all sides, by the way. Most folks determine that in order to build themselves up they must put others down. Who’s going to believe that we are better unless we show dirt on our opponent? Who’s going to choose us unless they are convinced that there’s something wrong with the other candidate? A self-righteous attitude dominates the political arena to convince people that we are right, and they are wrong! That’s exactly what the Pharisee did in his prayer to God. He tried to justify himself before the Lord by finding fault with the man beside him. He should have stopped at the recitation of his good qualities. He had done many good things. Yet, he was repulsed by the proximity of the tax collector. The tax collector had invaded his sacred space. He had dared to come before God, just like he had. Perhaps, if just for a moment, the Pharisee felt that they were somehow equal—that’s what intimidated him. Two men bowed in prayer before the Lord.
The same might be true for us when we come upon a poor person on the street; or a homeless person; or someone who gets stopped by the police. “But for the grace of God, there go I.” We all share in the human condition. We are all subject to being born and having to die. What happens in between sometimes depends on us but can be predetermined by nationality, country of origin, genetic limitations. The one common denominator that we can never forget is that we are all created by God and that God loves us all unconditionally. When we disagree with one another we automatically conclude that God is on our side. Jesus raised the question. The Pharisee assumed that God was on his side and that the tax collector was unworthy of God’s mercy. Jesus pointed out that the tax collector went home justified. In other words, in God’s grace. The Pharisee did not go home justified.
The Pharisee was too full of himself. He felt that his good deeds earned his justification. The tax collector had no good deeds to show. He was at the bottom. He recited the most perfect Act of Contrition prayer possible: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” That’s all that we must remember when we come to the Sacrament of Confession. If not for God’s mercy none of us would be here. Everything is gift. We have done nothing to deserve who we are and what we have. Next time we are tempted to look down our noses at anyone, our challenge is to look at ourselves first. We all have defects. There are no sinless people, except for Our Lord and the Blessed Mother, everyone else has need of repentance. We are not notorious sinners, but we are not free of sin. Therefore, no one has given us the right to put ourselves above others. The attitude of the Pharisee is very popular. Discrimination has damaged families, communities, even our country. Who do we think we are? Who has the power to tell God whom to love? Only the Lord can judge. And we are eternally grateful that He does not judge us according to our faults. God looks at our stupidities and just smiles. He forgives us even before we ask.
The one directive that we have from Jesus is that we forgive each other. Our vocation is to love and to leave all judgement in God’s hands.