As you know, the readings for Mass on Sundays are arranged in a three-year cycle, so it’s three years ago that we heard these very same readings for this Mass of the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Now, you would have thought that a three-yearly cycle would give the homilist more than enough food for thought. But for me, the readings for today’s Mass are exceptional and unique, because every single time I hear or read today’s Gospel my thoughts return to when I overheard a very good and pious woman saying to her friend after Mass: “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee in the Gospel today!” Those words, which I heard twenty-five years ago are indelibly recorded in my memory, and they inspired me to write the homily you’re going to hear today. Perhaps I was inspired, because most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, are like the Pharisee in the Gospel. We do exactly the same as he did. We parade our good deeds before God, and we use them as a justification for looking down on others. Now, we may not do this in so many words, but at the very least we think it. And so, I want to tell you about several people who went into church to pray and this is how they prayed.
The first, a man, prayed like this, he said: ‘Thank you, Lord, that I have a good job. Mind you, I worked hard to get it, and I’ve worked even harder to keep it. I think I can say that I’ve proved myself worthy of it. I thank you that I have never had to live off social security. Every penny I possess I’ve earned by the sweat of my brow. I’m not like those layabouts who are forever sponging on society. They should be put to work instead of getting constant hand-outs. Thank God I’m not like them!
The second person, a woman, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord, that my children are well behaved. I’m not saying they’re angels, but you won’t find them going around causing trouble or terrifying elderly people. Nor will you hear them using bad language. Not like those ruffians on the other side of town who run wild and do whatever they like. Why, Lord, even you would be shocked if you heard their language! These are the criminals of tomorrow, and I’ll make sure my children stay well clear of them.
The third person, another woman, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord that my marriage is working out. Of course Jim and I have had our problems, but we’ve stuck together and we’ve worked things out. Not like those young couples whose marriages break up within a year or two of starting. The first sign of a problem and one or both of them make a dash for freedom. Obviously they can’t take the rough with the smooth, so I’m glad I’m not like them!
The fourth person, a man, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord that I can take a drink and leave it at that. I’m not like those other men who don’t know when to stop. They live in the pub and only surface for fresh air. Like the man next door who comes home legless every night. I can hear his wife giving out at him and the children screaming. Thank you Lord that I’m not like him.’
The fifth person, a woman, prayed like this: ‘Thank you, Lord that I have been able to stick to the religion I was brought up in, unlike many of my neighbours. Some of them are like the ox and the ass of the crib: they appear in church only once a year! Maybe I’m a bit of a traditionalist. For instance I don’t go for Communion in the hand. I don’t think I’m worthy of touching the Host. But when I see Mrs-so-and-so coming up the aisle with her hand stretched out it sends a shudder down my spine. Next thing, she’ll be putting herself forward as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. Thank you Lord that I’m not like her.’
The sixth person, a man, didn’t even go inside the church. He said this prayer as he passed by: “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like the crowd who go in there every Sunday to worship you. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocrites, if you ask me. They give each other a handshake as a sign of friendship and peace, but I know for a fact that when they come out some of them won’t even talk to one another. They say they worship you, but I know different. They worship money and things. At least I’m being honest. I know I’m no saint, but then I don’t pretend to be one. Thank you Lord that I’m not like them!
Now, I could go on all day giving examples, but the point that I am trying to make, and perhaps a little laboriously, is that there is a Pharisee lurking within each one of us. All the people I mentioned – and they are all fictitious, but maybe you recognised yourself among them – all these people were very sincere folk. They weren’t lying. They did the things they said they did. But the same was true of the Pharisee who spoke with Our Lord. He was scrupulously honest; he was a faithful family man, and a meticulous observer of the Jewish Law. In fact he did even more than the Law required of him. Jewish Law required only one fast a year, but he fasted twice a year. The Law only required tithes on certain commodities, but he paid tithes on all of them.
So, where did he go wrong? Well, first of all his attitude to God was completely wrong. He believed that he had run up a formidable credit-balance with God, and as a result he thought he had God in his debt. So God owes him salvation. His attitude towards his neighbour was also wrong. He felt that his good and upright life put him above everyone else. It not only gave him a warm inner glow, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it also inflated his ego and he put himself up on a pedestal. And from this lofty pedestal he looked down on others, especially on the tax collectors and the prostitutes; but he didn’t just look down on them, he despised them.
And so, this man was oozing with pride, and this pride poisoned him at the core of his being, and it infected all his good deeds. There wasn’t a shred of humility in him; because humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, warts and all. And humility is the soil in which all the other virtues grow and flourish; without it they either go to seed or they never flower.
And so, the Pharisee serves as a warning to the self-righteous. It’s so easy to deceive ourselves. You only have to look around and you see so much crime and corruption and injustice in the world and, though you may never say it aloud, you may think: ‘Thank God I’m not like all those others who steal and cheat and murder and the rest.’ Yes, there is a pride and a selfishness that can exist among even good and devout people; but it’s impossible to weigh the sins of others without putting one’s own fingers on the scales.
The tax collector prayed: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In saying this he was simply being realistic. He was only telling the truth. “I know I am a sinner.” If we can say these same words with conviction and humility, then we are very close to God, and it gives us a great sense of freedom. We no longer have to pretend that we are holy.
Being virtuous doesn’t mean we won’t slip and slide and fall occasionally; rather being virtuous means we’re prepared to get up and try again.