Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deacon Blaine Barclay

The focus in the gospel and other readings today is the contrast between pride and humility.

It would be a mistake to take Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector as simply a story about something that took place a long time ago. The Pharisee is a type, a representative standing in for all of us who are religious, and because of that can tend toward self-righteousness. Jesus knows that holding others in contempt is a perennial temptation of those who have given themselves over to the practice of living a righteous life style. It is all too easy for us to fall into this sin, the vice of pride and self-regard. This story is the story of us.

The question is, concretely, how do I fall into this very subtle trap, turning repentance on its head by turning it into a form of self-justification. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”. Just so we don’t let ourselves off the hook because we don’t happen to be thieves or adulterers, let’s go with the first part of the text. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”. Are we not all in some way infected with this disease of pride. Granted, we are each one of us an unrepeatable gift, a mission from God, but let’s not let it go to our heads. The vice of self-righteous pride is very subtle, and takes on many forms. ‘Not being like other people’, could take the form of thinking I am better looking or of more proportionate size than person X. Or that I go more regularly to mass or the sacrament of penance. That my liturgical tastes are more refined than person Y. Or, that I read better books, have nicer clothes or lots of toys. Am more orthodox or open minded than person Z. Clericalism is also a form of this disease. It’s forms are as varied as the persons who fall into this trap. “Contempt for others’ is at the heart of this particular form of pride, and why Jesus so frequently speaks out against it. Genuine humility is its only cure, and only solidarity with the poor, the excluded, and the marginalized, will give us the humility of the tax collector. The humility of Christ who emptied himself taking the form of a slave, the ultimate act of solidarity.

So we continue to contrast the sin, the vice of pride, with the virtue of humility. “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast (x3) and saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. The tax collector, by way of participation in a simple liturgical act which corresponds to the condition of his heart, goes home ‘justified’. Do we not also participate every Sunday in a simple liturgical act, the Penitential Act, expressing our humility before God. (x3) ‘Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’. May our simple liturgical act of humility come also from the heart so that we too can go home ‘justified’.

Humility is a wide eyed, open hearted embrace of our common human condition. Knowing ourselves to be sinners, but in gratitude and confidence knowing ourselves to be ‘loved sinners’. Each one of us, along with all the others, ‘loved as if we were the only one’, as Augustine puts it. We should cry out, ‘God, I thank you that I am like other people’. Recognizing our own shared ‘poverty of spirit’.

In conclusion, what does it mean, like the tax collector, to go home ‘justified’? To be made right with God, who “is near to the broken hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit”.As our psalm today tells us. The one who “boasts in the Lord”, not in ourselves. The one who knows how to praise God because they know how not to praise the self. The shadow of religion is sometimes, the subtle idolatry of the self, together with the tendency to hold the other in contempt. To lift ourselves up at the expense of putting other people down. This is also part of the great reversal that is Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted”.