Tenth Sunday After Pentecost – The Conduct of the Pharisee and the Publican in the Temple
GOSPEL. Luke xviii. 9-14. At that time: To some who trusted in themselves as just, and despised others, Jesus spoke this parable:Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee, standing, prayed thus with himself: O God! I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers: as also is this publican; I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven: but struck his breast, saying: O God! be merciful to me a sinner! I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other, because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.
Our Lord, after having spoken of faith and prayer, addressed Himself to those who thought themselves good and just, telling them the parable of the Pharisee and publican in the Temple. Two men went to the Temple to pray: one was a Pharisee, a proud man, who thought he had always done great things, who was puffed up with his good deeds and boasted of them even to God Himself. The Pharisee asked for nothing, but took all the glory to himself. He stood up right, head erect, and facing the altar, full of pride, he prayed in this manner: “God,” he said,
“I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers: as also is this publican; I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess.”
What did he pray for? Really, nothing; he came to pray, but he broke out in praise of himself. May not this Pharisee be a picture of ourselves? May there not be also some Pharisees among us, my dear young friends? Are there not many who go to church to pray, but forget for what they are there? Ask that young man when he comes out of the church what favors he has asked of God at this most precious time of public prayer. You have been present at Mass, you have recited some prayers, but you did not think of what you were doing. St. Augustine says: “How can you expect that God will attend to your prayers when you do not think of them yourself?”
Young people are very apt to enter a church just as the Pharisee did, as if they were going to a place of amusement; their genuflection is a careless jump before the Blessed Sacrament, their heads are raised, their eyes are wandering and in a few minutes they will be able to tell who is present; they notice who comes into the church, and who goes out, and all this while the holy sacrifice of the Mass is being offered. It is almost impossible to believe it: they are disrespectful here in their exterior deportment, but they would know very well how to behave in company or in the presence of some great one of the world. But many come to church to do worse than the Pharisee: they come to laugh, to talk, and to disturb others who wish to pray; they come to commit sin and make others commit it. The Apostle Paul cried out with zeal, “Have you not your homes, or do you despise the church of God?” as if he wanted to say, have you not places where you can talk and laugh, need you come to the house of God to do this? No good pastor can look at this without concern; he will not allow you to talk, he will step in at once with a reprimand or send you out of church as a punishment. “My house is the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves,” he would say, using the words of Our Lord when He drove the desecrators out of the Temple. The pagans shame us in this regard; they go to the temple of their false gods with reverence and respect; the Mohammedan never goes into his mosque without taking off his shoes at the entrance and washing his feet as a sign of respect. These idolaters worship false gods made of wood, stone or metal, but with such respect that our outward show of piety and devotion, in many cases, is inferior to theirs.
Almighty God, who is thus carelessly treated by His worshippers, will not let such conduct pass unpunished. St. Chrysostom says that the reason of many of our calamities, wars, and famines, is because our churches are not held in sufficient respect, and kept exclusively for the purposes of prayer. Even Socrates, the pagan philosopher, asserts that the desecration of the temple is a sign of the anger of God, and foreshadows great calamities that are about to come upon the nation. The first Christians considered the churches heaven itself: here they came sprinkled with ashes, clothed in sackcloth, with a rope around their waist and humbly kissed the feet of the priest: not only did the common people do this, but even tyrants and kings.
The Emperor Theodosius entered the cathedral of Milan in a poor garment, and when he came to the threshold fell flat on his face, repeating the words of the psalm: “I have been humbled, Lord, exceedingly; quicken Thou me according to Thy word.” He remained in that attitude during the sacred functions.
St. Gregory of Nazianzen writes of his mother that she was so recollected in church that she never sat down, never spoke, never turned her back to the Blessed Sacrament.
These examples show that in former times great outward respect was shown in church. I will not ask you to come to church covered with ashes or dressed in sackcloth; but when you are there assume a respectful posture and ask God to pardon your sins.
Now let us go back to the Gospel; the Pharisee said, “I give Thee thanks that I am not like the rest of men.” What pride, what blindness this is! In reality this Pharisee was an impudent sinner. Here he was, in the presence of this great healer of the human race, standing before God with his soul stained by this dreadful malady of pride, yet he utters not a word to ask for help in the sickness of his soul. He should have opened his heart to God in groans and lamentations; he should have recognized the meanness of this vice, and begged of God the grace to overcome it; but the Pharisee never thought he was sinfully proud; that all the good in him was changed into wickedness by this vice.
We sometimes feel about the same way, for how often do we hear as an excuse for the want of religion, “I do not steal, nor curse, nor get drunk. I do no man any injury.” Supposing you are all that you say, are you therefore free from sin? Are not the bad conversations held with your companions, sins? Are not bad thoughts which kill the soul, sins?
I am ready to believe, my young friends, that you are not guilty of great sins, but even so, can you say, “I thank God, I am not like those other young men.” Just reflect for a moment: supposing you are not guilty of grave faults ought you on that account be proud? You know well enough that you lack much, as followers of Jesus Christ. You commit many venial sins; you know you tell many little lies; you are frequently disobedient; you have very little devotion, very little respect for God in church; you are careless at your prayers, and by these smaller sins, instead of advancing in the path of virtue, you are going back. Again, you say with some pride, we are not as bad as others, for we have not committed great crimes.
If, my dear young people, by a special grace of God you have not, up to the present, fallen into certain great sins, yet if you continue in your cold way, you will in the course of years certainly fall into them. If pride is your governing vice, you will certainly come to a great fall, for it is the punishment of pride to descend into the most abject humiliation.
In the lives of the Fathers, we read of a monk who lived a long time in the desert, doing great penance and practicing many virtues; but somehow he had not that humility which a holy man ought to possess. Almighty God wished to save him and so, to humble him, He sent him a temptation and the monk fell.
Instead of keeping your eyes on the wicked so that you may say, “Thank God, I am not so bad as to be capable of doing that,” keep your eyes on young people who are virtuous and exemplary, and ask yourself why you are not as good as they are. These people are devout in church, they frequent the Sacraments, hear the word of God, are obedient to their superiors, patient, mild, polite and modest in thought, word and action. Am I like them? Remember you must acquire all the virtues of the good if you would be good yourself. Even supposing you are doing very well, that you appear to walk in the path of virtue, you cannot consider yourself perfect, and you cannot thank God that you are better than others; for after all you are only like a servant who has merely done his duty and is not worthy of special commendation for that.
Athens was a great school of philosophy and many students flocked to it. In the first years the Athenian student boasted that he knew everything; some years later on he felt that he knew but little, and finally, compared to what he ought to know, he admitted that he knew nothing. It used to be said at that time that the student who had reached that pitch of philosophy was the one most applauded for his success.
Solon, the Gentile philosopher, held this principle: “Of this,” said he, “I am sure, that I know nothing.” I think the same holds true of virtue; the greater opinion we have of our virtue the less we have of it. “When you have done all that is required of you, say you are useless servants.”
We have said enough of the proud Pharisee; let us now consider the publican. Who is that at the farthest end of the church? Why does he not come up and approach the altar? It is the poor, penitent publican. There he stands, beating his breast with shame, and with tearful eyes raised to heaven, cries, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Yes, truly he was a sinner; but he acknowledged himself as such, he bewailed his sins and received pardon for them at once. We ought to have that same feeling, that we are sinners; we should acknowledge that we are not fit to stand before God in His holy place. Let us with sorrow confess our sins to a priest and say,
“Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Make a good examination of conscience, that your sorrow may extend to all your faults, none forgotten and none concealed. Make up your mind firmly that you will hate these sins in the future; turn your eyes to the Heart of Jesus, and pray to Him that He, your Judge, may forgive you. “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And when you rise from the feet of the priest, you will hear the sweet words, “Son, thy sins are forgiven thee, go in peace and sin no more.”
St. Francis de Sales says, “When you go to confession, imagine you stand with your sins beneath the cross, that drops of blood are falling on your soul from the wounds of the dying Lord, washing away every stain of sin.”