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Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Luke 18: 9-14

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in today's Gospel was addressed to those people who were self-confidently sure, considered themselves superior and despised others. It had a powerful emotional impact.

His purpose was not to offend the Pharisees but He wanted them to change their proud ways and to take an honest look at themselves. You can be sure they were offended for no-one, then or now, likes being told they are in the wrong.

The Pharisee's musings were by far the longer of the two. It was no prayer at all, but self-congratulation. The tax collector’s prayer was a brief plea for mercy. Jesus ended the story by saying that God was pleased with this prayer from someone who knew his place before God. He saw God as all holy and himself as a sinner. He was telling the truth. In contrast, the Pharisee was a proud man who could see no faults in himself, only in the tax collector. God was very displeased with him and his prayer, if we can call it that. It was a complete waste of time.

What characters would Jesus employ if He were to retell the same story to us today? He certainly would not use the Pharisee because this sect is long since dead and gone, but the spirit they represented is still very much alive. In fact, the word ‘pharisaism’ is still a part of our language: the dictionary defines it as “the external observance of religious rituals without genuine piety.” That definition needs to be expanded to include any person who considers himself or herself superior to any other person on any grounds.

Take the subject of race. Some people seem convinced that the colour of their skin sets them apart as a better class of people. This is just not true. The colour of your skin does not make you a better character, a more intelligent person or in any way better than someone who does not have the same colour of skin as yours. God did not give you that colour to be arrogant towards another person. Life is a gift from God for everyone and is a cause for gratitude.

Is there any area of life where we hold ourselves aloof and look down on any other group for any reason? If the answer is yes, then we are like the Pharisee and today’s parable is addressed to us. Perhaps you are a little more intelligent than the average person. That is no reason for pride. It only heightens your opportunity and obligation to serve the rest of us. Suppose I am physically stronger than you. That does not make me a superior person. It simply means that when physical strength is needed, I should be the one to help you.

Probably the Pharisee in the parable did have a higher moral standard than the tax collector, but that was no cause for boasting. Suppose the Pharisee had offered his friendship to the tax collector, perhaps both could have learnt something from each other and been better people.

The Pharisee and the tax collector had two things in common. They were both sinners. The one recognised he was a sinner, the other did not.
They were both offered the mercy of God. The difference was that one of them accepted it, the other did not. The same can be said of us.

Lord Jesus, help me to recognise that I am a sinner and to welcome Your mercy. May I like the publican beat my breast and say “God, be merciful to me, I am a sinner.”

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