Homily — 30th Sunday OT C October 28, 2007
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
In the Gospel, we meet two men: one who exalts himself before God (you could even say over God), who goes home unjustified and humbled; and another who humbles himself before God (you could even say he puts himself under God), who goes home justified and exalted.
If we want to fully understand this parable, it’s very important that we realize that it could easily have been told the other way around, with the Pharisee humbling himself and the tax collector exalting himself.
The big problem for example with the Pharisee wasn’t that he was a Pharisee who tried to live a very upright moral life. It wasn’t even that he was boasting about the virtues he had.
If you don’t believe me, notice how in the second reading, St. Paul the Apostle is boasting about his virtues: I have competed well, I have kept the faith, the Lord will award me a crown of righteousness.
The difference between Paul and the Pharisee is that Paul hasn’t let it all get to his head, while the Pharisee has. The Pharisee uses his good deeds and religion as something which makes him feel superior to everyone else. It’s this attitude of superiority that’s the problem: O God I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity: greedy, dishonest, adulterous.
i.e., I’m generous, but everyone else is greedy and tight. I’m honest, but everyone else is a two faced liar. I’m pure, but everyone else had a dirty mind.
And not only does the Pharisee think this about humanity in general, but worse he thinks it about each one in particular. Every time he looks at someone, like the tax collector, he likes to find in them faults and sins which makes him feel superior to them.
Had the Pharisee had a different attitude, and prayed a different way, he would have went home justified also. Had he prayed: “God thank you for keeping me from falling into greed. Thank you for giving me a conscience which won’t let me tell a lie no matter what. Thank you God for the wife you gave me and the love I have for her, and the grace you’ve given me to be faithful to my marriage vows.
“Help me God to keep fasting twice a week like I’ve been doing. Help me to keep giving 10% of my income to charity. May I not be tempted in the future to turn away from you.”
That is the prayer of a humble Pharisee who God will exalt.
Now, we look at the sinful yet humble tax collector of the parable, who has none of the virtues the Pharisee has. It certainly isn’t his many sins which Jesus is pleased with. It’s rather his attitude towards his sins that justifies him. And again, the tax collector could just as easily have exalted himself: he could have said “It’s not my fault that I am the way I am God. If I didn’t have the parents I have, if I didn’t have the wife and kids I have, I’d be a lot different person.
“And anyway God, what I do isn’t really so bad anyway. I’m a good person, I don’t kill anyone, do I? And at least I’m not like that holier than thou Pharisee up in the front row!”
Had this been his exalted and proud attitude, he would have been humbled by God. But instead, the tax collector has a humble attitude about himself. For one thing, despite his many sins of greed and dishonesty and betraying his own people, and maybe not a few other big doozies, the tax collector is there at Church, a place where all the sins he’s committed will be brought to light, where his conscience is going to be challenged by the readings and the sermons.
If the tax collector wanted to keep sinning, he would have been better off going to a bar than a Church, which means he’s at least looking for God and holiness in his life. And at the Church he feels rightly ashamed even to look up to Heaven at God. He only beats his breast and ask for mercy: “Forgive me God. I am a sinner. Help me to quit this sinful job of mine and like Matthew did, to start a new life with you.”
And in doing so, the tax collector left the Temple one step closer to God and his neighbor, while the Pharisee left one step further away from both.
Whether we find ourselves with big sins like the tax collector, or by God’s grace with big virtues like the Pharisee and St. Paul, may this Eucharist we celebrate help us to humble ourselves, that God may exalt us.