Pride and prejudice

23 October 2022 30th Sunday Year C

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel continues Jesus’ teaching on prayer. It relates one of Jesus’ best-known parables, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As with all of Jesus’ parables, it turns our expectations upside down!

Luke begins by noting that “Jesus spoke this parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.”

Jesus speaks first of the Pharisee as a good and upright man, not greedy, dishonest, or adulterous, who in his fasting and alms-giving does even more than the religious laws required. He is indeed a model of obedience to the Law. By no means does Jesus condemn him.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is by no means a virtuous man. He is despised as a collaborator with the occupying Roman oppressors and for his often fraudulent and extortionist practices in the process of his tax collecting. He was the lowest of the low in society, reviled by all. But Jesus turns our expectations upside down, teaching us that it was not “the good man” whose prayer is pleasing to God! It was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who “went home justified,” whose prayer found favour with God. Why? The Pharisee, for all his moral superiority, was a sinner, but he didn’t recognise it.

 His sinfulness is his lack of humility, his pride, and, moreover, his lack of compassion and his condescending and prejudicial attitude towards others.

Jesus also notes that, in his prayer, the Pharisee is speaking “to himself,” not to God. The Pharisee was virtuous in his attention to the many requirements of the law; but not in his attitude to others or to God. The tax collector, by contrast, does not even dare to raise his eyes to heaven when he prays. Without a trace of self-righteousness or self-justification, he humbly prays to God, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It is his humble and heartfelt prayer that finds God’s favour.

Jesus concludes the parable with the teaching: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus himself, Lord and God, is the supreme exemplar, humbling himself even to death of a cross.

For every person the parable urges us – as individuals and as a community and society – to humility, humility in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other. It calls us to an ever-deeper integrity in our lives: to be ever mindful of our own sinfulness, our faults and failings, and wary of a tendency to be judgemental and lacking in compassion in our attitudes towards others. And it calls each one of us, no matter our station in life, to authenticity in our prayer, the humble acknowledgement of our reality as sinners, utterly reliant on God’s merciful and forgiving love.

Anne Hunt

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