JUSTO GONZÁLEZ recounts the story of the Sunday-school teacher who ended a study of our Gospel reading by praying, “Lord, we thank you that we have your Word and your Church, and that therefore we are not like the Pharisee. . .”
As González observes, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector has “the power to catch us unawares, and even to to do so repeatedly”. As we chuckle knowingly, giving thanks that we are more sophisticated than this teacher, we fall into the same conceit (Belief: A theological commentary on the Bible — Luke).
Jesus tells the parable to highlight the cost of such spiritual pride. The fantasies that we have of our imagined holiness and virtue prevent our engaging with the reality, and the mercy, of God. As St Basil observes, the Pharisee does not actually intend to talk to God. Rather, his words curve back in on himself. He has made an idol of his good works.
Just as material gifts can become icons (which draw us into a deeper relationship with their Giver), or idols (which supplant him in our affections), so, too, can spiritual gifts. We make our good deeds into idols when we fail to recognise that they have come about through God’s action in us, imagining them to be something that we achieved unaided.
The Pharisee begins “God, I thank you. . .”, but this is a false show of gratitude. As St John Chrysostom explains, “To give thanks is not to heap reproaches on others,” advising, “When you return thanks to God, let him be all in all to you. Turn not your thoughts to others, nor condemn your neighbour.” The antidotes to the Pharisee’s conceit — and ours — are humility and gratitude: the acknowledgement both that we need God’s mercy for the wrongs we do, and that the good that we do accomplish is an effect of his grace.
Chrysostom compares the two men in the parable to chariots in a race. In one, there is “righteousness with pride”, and, in the other, “sin with humility”. The scandalous message of this Gospel is that the latter pairing triumphs over the former. “You see the chariot of sin outstrip that of righteousness, not by its own strength but by the excellence of humility combined with it; but the other is defeated not by righteousness, but by the weight and swelling of pride.”
Such pride corrupts the goodness of our deeds, focusing our attention on self rather than neighbour or God. It thus prevents our actions from being rooted and grounded in love. In contrast, humility creates the possibility of our sin being both forgiven and conquered.
In our epistle, when Paul recounts his witness to the gospel — having “fought the good fight” and “finished the race” — he reminds Timothy that this has been possible only in God’s power. As Jouette Bassler explains, the emphasis in Paul’s advice to Timothy is not on his own good works, but “on the strength, support, and rescue that the Lord provides. Paul’s experience thus offers an object lesson for Timothy” (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus).
Paul’s humility and gratitude flow from his experience of divine mercy. As he acknowledged to Timothy at the start of the letter, he was “formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1.13). As St Augustine says, Paul is confessing that he is unworthy to receive the “crown of righteousness” described in v.4 of our reading. “He obtained it not by his own merits but by the mercy of God. Hear him now ready to receive what is owed, he who had first accepted unmerited grace.”
When we take the path of the Pharisee, we are condemned to a life of anxious self-justification. This is self-defeating, because, at some level of our being, we know that our fantasies of holiness and virtue are, indeed, illusory. Spiritual freedom is possible only when we take leave of those fantasies, casting ourselves on the mercy and grace of God.
Our psalm declares: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Whereas the pride of the Pharisee curves his heart inward in self-congratulation, the humility and penitence of the tax collector opens up such a “highway” to union with the Lord of mercy.