Everyone that exalts himself shall be humbled, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.
Dominica decima post Pentecosten
5 August 2012
In today’s parable, Our Lord evidently wishes to impress upon us the importance of humility. Without humility, it is impossible to be just before God. To underscore the importance of humility, Our Lord presents us with two individuals, a Pharisee and a Publican or tax collector. In the eyes of contemporary Jewish society, the Pharisee would have been regarded as the quintessential just man, the man whose life and conduct is rightly ordered towards God. After all, the Pharisee endeavored to follow all 613 laws contained in the Torah, and doubtless succeeded in doing so, at least to some degree. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the most despised man in Palestine — and understandably so. He had no problem collaborating with the hated Roman authorities to collect taxes. And if he was a typical tax collector, he would have been in the habit of collecting far more than Rome expected him to collect. That’s how he made his living. Thus, as far as the Jews were concerned, the Publican was irretrievably wicked, the Pharisee almost automatically holy and “just”.
And yet, the divine calculus comes to the exact opposite conclusion because it takes into account the variable of humility. Not realizing that following the Law does not give him the right to be contemptuous of others (as if he does not need God’s mercy just as much as anyone else), the proud Pharisee fails to achieve justification or righteousness in the sight of God. On the other hand, the wicked Publican receives the mercy of God and comes away “justified” precisely because he recognizes that he has sinned and needs God’s mercy and forgiveness.