20 Pentecost, Year C: Righteousness and Humility

SUNDAY’S READINGS | October 23, 2022

Joel 2:23-32 or Sir. 35:12-17 or Jer. 14:7-10
Ps. 65 or Ps. 84:1-6
2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). The well-known parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector may be heard as a straightforward vindication of the penitent tax collector, as if to suggest that the righteousness of the Pharisee is of little or no value. The Pharisee in the parable and those listening to Jesus stand under judgment because they “trusted in themselves” and “regarded others with contempt.” Righteousness, a life rightly ordered toward the love of God and one’s neighbor, is in no sense condemned. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6).

The Pharisee and the tax collector are both in the temple; they have both come to prayer. In this regard, they are both to be commended. “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God” (Ps. 84:1). Moreover, the temple of God is home to creation itself, to all being. “The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are they who dwell in your house! They will always be praising you” (Ps. 84:2-3).

In the temple, a house of prayer for all of creation, the Pharisee and tax collector stand together. It should be noted, however, that the Pharisee deliberately “stands by himself,” as if sensing that his high moral status distinguishes him from other people. The Pharisee confesses that he is not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, or even like “this tax collector.” The Pharisee, it should be admitted, is, in some objective sense, a righteous man. Further, he says that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all his income. The tithe he refers to is for the relief of the poor. The Pharisee embodies a central ethical tenant to care for the poor. “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford” (Sir. 35:12).

The tax collector, regarded by the people of his time as a traitor and thief, makes no claim of moral righteousness. Indeed, he acknowledges his moral deficit both through his gestures and words. He stands far off, he does not look up to heaven, he beats his breast. He says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In his penitence, the tax collector acknowledges the goodness of righteousness, a goodness he utterly lacks. He cannot, therefore, trust in his moral virtue but must plead for the mercy of God.

The tax collector went to his home justified because he humbled himself before God. Justified, he could not remain the same. “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. … They will climb from height to height” (Ps. 84:4, 6). The moral transformation of the tax collector is the untold portion of the parable. The Pharisee, though a righteous man in many ways, does not return to his home justified, because he trusted in his righteousness and regarded others with scorn. His moral goodness was spoiled by a spiritual pride that set him as a judge against other people.

If he had prayed in humility, he would have seen that his righteousness was not yet perfect, or a pretext for judging others.

Look It Up: Luke 18:13

Think About It: The mercy we seek is assured.


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