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He spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being upright and despised everyone else,
‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like everyone else, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.”
The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man, I tell you, went home again justified; the other did not. For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, but anyone who humbles himself will be raised up.’
Another well-known Gospel reading at Mass today, but also a very significant one. At first glance it reminds us not to be boastful, not to pride ourselves on things at the expense of others.
The pharisee may well speak the truth above: he may indeed by generous, just and faithful, fasting and paying his tithes. But to whom does he compare himself? To the Lord God, of whom his life should be a reflection? No, he compares himself to those who, in his own perception, are not as generous, just and faithful as he is. What this incorrect direction of comparison leads to is rather beautifully shown in the line, “The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself”. He doesn’t pray to God, he speaks his boastful words to himself.
When we compare ourselves to others and then boast about how much better we are than they, we become the arbiter of how things should be. Rather than looking up to God who can lift us up into a more perfect life with Him, we stop at ourselves. When we do something that is good in our own perception, then it must be good, for we decide that for ourselves.
But we are imperfect beings, living in an imperfect world. We are eternally called to improve ourselves, to strive for a life in imitation of Christ. That means that we follow someone who is above and outside ourselves, someone more perfect.
Does that mean we can’t take pride in our achievements? No, we can, but we must make the clear distinction between what we ourselves are able to do, and what has been given us. And we must certainly not take that pride as a reason to look down upon others. In the eyes of God we are all sinners, as the tax collector recognises. We also rarely have the complete picture, so taking pride over the expense of others is ultimately unjust.
In our imitation of Christ, we should make use of the talents that have been given us, and we should appreciate them. But they are tools and do not make us better people in themselves. It’s how we use them that matters most.
Art credit: “The Pharisee and the Publican,” by James Tissot