The Proud Pharisee, and the Humble Tax Collector

The virtue of humility is primordial in the life of every Christian. However, it can easily be misrepresented.

Newsdesk (24/10/2022 3:15 PM, Gaudium PressWe often see in the Holy Gospels, through the magnificent teachings transmitted by Jesus, how much God loves humble and unpretentious souls.

Countless are the occasions on which Our Lord alludes to these virtues, encouraging his hearers to acquire them by his divine example: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 27:29).

We also see, in Chapter 18 of St Luke’s Gospel, this same divine desire return to the fore, when we are told that: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Lk 18:14).

These words pronounced by the divine lips of our Lord Jesus Christ highlight God’s predilection for humble souls, but also His rejection of pride, so prominent in those who are children of Adam. In this regard, Jesus weaves a parable for those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Lk 18:9).

The proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector

Two characters are represented in this parable: the Pharisee and the tax collector. The person of the Pharisee, so often criticized and reproached by the Divine Master for his hypocrisy, falsehood and wickedness – as when he reproached them as “serpents”, “a brood of vipers” and “whitewashed tombs” (cf. Mt 23:25-27) – is once again recalled in this narration. In a different sense, there is the person of the tax collector, extremely hated by the Jews for his customary bad conduct – for his fraud and theft in habitually collecting taxes beyond the stipulated amount – presented, however, with a humble and contrite attitude for his sins.

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The Pharisee presents himself in the Τemplo puffed up with pride, saying his prayer:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Lk 18:11-12).

St. Augustine commented well on him: “He went up to the Temple to pray and did not want to pray to God, but to praise himself. It is a sad thing to praise oneself instead of praying to God; moreover, it adds to the contempt of the one who was praying.”[1]

The tax collector, on the other hand, enters the holy place, but remains at a distance, beats his breast and does not even dare to look up to heaven. With this disposition of recognition of his sad situation as a sinner, he says:

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13).

What a difference in attitudes! The repentant tax collector obtained from God the salvation of his own soul; the Pharisee, on the other hand, received only his earthly reward... (cf. Mt 6:16) It is clear, therefore, how proper to the virtue of humility is simplicity, detachment, the recognition of our nothingness and our complete dependence on God. What an example for us.

However, since humility is a primordial virtue for every Christian, the devil uses his wiles to distort it, masking it with facades that make it misunderstood.

Let us include a third character in this parable to clarify this idea.

He is a Jew, faithful to the Mosaic law and to ancient customs who, strictly speaking, knows himself to be truly a son of Abraham. However, a contrario sensu, he lives in a pagan town and, in order not to cause any trouble with his colleagues and acquaintances, he thinks it appropriate not to manifest his religion in front of others, so as “not to look bad…”.

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He addresses prayers and supplications to God, but only interiorly, in the “humility” of his heart. He does not seek to oppose or debate current fashionable topics, however immoral and opposed to God’s laws they might be, since it is not in keeping with his condition as a “simple” and “humble” servant of God to provoke divisions. He often goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray there. When he enters the sacred enclosure, he closes his eyes, bows his head and, whispering, says

“I praise you, O God, to be able to be here in your presence. I desire, first of all, much health, peace and success in life…”

In such an attitude, could there be anything wrong?

It is fitting to answer that true humility is not the virtue of those who are timid about living and proclaiming the Catholic faith, of those too concerned with human respect to contradict and attack the errors of our society, nor of those who are concerned only with their own interests and comforts. The true “humble of heart” acts like our Lord: he knows how to censure the errors of his time, to live in holiness and to proclaim without fear the divine law and the Kingdom of God.

This, then, is what the Liturgy of the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time urges us to do: to be humble and pious fighters, placed entirely in the hands of Our Lord through prayer, but without ever taking an attitude so distorted as that of false humility.

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Therefore, with our heads held high, our hearts contrite and ardent, and with the certainty that the spiritual life of every Christian is a battle, let us take the attitude of a truly Catholic soul in the face of the horrors and errors of false piety, so widely disseminated and preached in our days.

May Our Lady, the “humble handmaid of the Lord”, favour us in this.

By Guilherme Motta

[1] SANTO AGOSTINHO. Sermo CXV, n.2. In: Obras. Madrid: BAC, 1952, v. 9, p. 439.

Compiled by Roberta MacEwan

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