9 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.c 10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’d 13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’e 14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”f
The standard interpretation of the verses today is to equate the Pharisee with the Church. The fact that she says sins exist and that all are sinners is seen as judging the world while praising herself. That is to miss the point of why the Church exists. The Church doesn’t exist to pick out and exalt the exemplary person while shaming the rest. She exists to carry out Christ’s role of bringing back the Lost Sheep to the fold and the Prodigal Son to the family, each Christian acknowledging his or her own sins. The Christian, properly formed in his or her faith, knows they sin and seeks out Jesus as Savior. The Prayer of St. Ambrose before Mass expresses well how Christians should see themselves:
I approach your banquet table in fear and trembling,
for I am a sinner,
and dare not rely on my own worth,
but only on your goodness and mercy.
I am defiled by many sins in body and soul,
and by my unguarded thoughts and words.
Gracious God of majesty and awe,
I seek your protection,
I look for your healing.
Poor troubled sinner that I am,
I appeal to you, the fountain of all mercy.
I cannot bear your judgment,
but I trust in your salvation.
None of us can approach Our Lord with the attitude of “I am Good, Praise me!” All of us must acknowledge that we do evil and seek His help in repenting from this evil. If we do not recognize that we are sinners, we cannot seek out His healing and His mercy.
Unfortunately, the curse of modern times is the fact that people don’t recognize that they do evil anymore—instead they assume that their sins “aren’t important,” and point to the sins of Christians throughout history as a way of showing their superiority to the Christian. “My sleeping with my boyfriend/girlfriend isn’t as bad as their intolerance!"
It is that charge of “intolerance” as an unforgivable sin” that seems to place the modern person in the category of the Pharisee and not the Tax Collector. The modern person looks at Christianity as hating the person who sins, but this is because the modern person cannot distinguish between the person and the acts they perform—they are seen as one and the same. But Christianity has a view which divides what the world will not divide. G.K. Chesterton expresses this division very well:
A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn’t: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing; but it is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all. It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. (Orthodoxy, page 175)
The distinction is important. It points out that Christianity recognizes forgiving the sinner always, but never accepting the sinful act as allowable. So, the murderer can be forgiven for his sin, but murder can never be redeemed as a good act. The man is not destined to be a murderer forever. Jesus gives grace to repent and if the sinner chooses to say, “I did wrong,” he can be cleansed of his sin with the admonition to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). But the choice has to be made—does he reject the sin and repent or does he let the sin define him and refuse to repent?
Now in cases like murder and rape, we tend to all be in agreement, but I think the problem in the modern West is we don’t want to give up certain sins and resent the implication that we are sinners because of this attachment. We let the sin define us and denouncing the sin is seen as hating the sinner. But that’s the problem. The teaching of Jesus Christ is that all of us are sinners—both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector—and repentance is required if one wants salvation. When the Pharisee praises himself, he does not go away justified. But what if the tax collector praised himself and refused to recognize his sinful actions as sinful? He would not be justified either.
When we look at things this way, I think we see why modern society is in such moral danger today. It defines Christianity as self-righteous in judging others, but it refuses to judge itself. Essentially, modern society stands the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector on its head, saying “I thank you I am not like that Christian!"
So, that’s the trap. Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector can repent and be justified because they humbled themselves. But both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector can deny their sins, look down on others and walk away unjustified because they exalt themselves.
Perhaps Advent, less than a week away, would be a good time to reflect on where we individually stand before the Lord.