Thirtieth Sunday of the Year – Mission Sunday
The opening verse of today’s gospel about people “who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else” sets the scene for the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It is really a question of self-knowledge: if we were to say “thank God I’m not like that Pharisee anyhow” maybe we really are! The parable is all about the belief that we can achieve righteousness by our own efforts. In the Greco-Roman world of the time a virtuous/righteous person was one who kept the laws and legal customs – what we might call a decent person. Often today such a person is called a good Christian. But in the Hebrew Scriptures the person who was righteousness was one who acted in right relationship with God, with other people and the world around. Sin, for Jesus, was not so much about broken laws as about broken relationships.
The Pharisee, by despising those around him (standing apart, looking down on the tax collector who was certainly one who broke the Law in the Pharisee’s book), was self-righteous, not accepting that righteousness is a gift from God. The tax collector recognised this fully. The parable has him beating his breast, something a man of the time would never do in public. He asks for God’s mercy, a word that in the context meant asking that God would make atonement (at-one-ment) for him: he recognises that he is not God’s friend as he is, but he longs to be at one with God. He does not compare himself with others, as the Pharisee does, but looks into his own heart, putting his trust in God rather than in his own efforts.
So, to the amazement of those around, Jesus says that it was the tax collector who went home at rights with God. They would have expected that if he did go home at rights with God it would have been because of the prayers of the “good” Pharisee!
St. Catherine of Siena spoke of the importance of self-knowledge in the search for God: “As the soul comes to know herself she also knows God better, for she sees how good he has been to her. In the gentle mirror of God she sees her own dignity; that through no merit of hers but by his creation she is the image of God. And in the mirror of God’s goodness she sees as well her own unworthiness, the work of her own sin.” (Dialogue 13).
Sr Celine Mangan O.P