Publican and Pharisee (Lk.18:10-14) Fr. Philip Speranza Feb. 9 2014
In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 the Apostle Paul warns against hardness of heart towards people who’ve messed up, “lest Satan should get an advantage of us, for we are not ignorant of his devices.” In his efforts to distract and dissuade and ultimately damn us, Satan comes after us with a well-stocked and well-tested arsenal of “devices,” of tactics, of tricks and traps to catch us a hold us as flypaper catches and holds a fly. And through the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, today’s Gospel, Luke 18:10-14, focuses our attention on Satan’s most dangerous device: pride.
What is pride? Well firstly, pride is not a sense of satisfaction in a job well done; Genesis 1:31 says that even “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” Nor is it the satisfaction and joy we feel in being children of God—as long as we’re ever mindful that, as John 1:13 says, we’ve become children of God “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Rather, pride is holding a high opinion of one’s self, of one’s worth, and taking the credit for that worth. It’s self-conceit, and it’s idolatry. Exodus 20:2-3 commands, “I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” But pride enshrines self as the true and ruling god in one’s life. Someone once said oh-so-rightly, “Pride, the idolatrous worship of self, is the national religion of hell.”
Pride—competitive by nature, in the sense that we’ll stop at nothing to make sure we’re always on the winning side because we don’t want to look inferior—puts “me first” into play, whether it’s in church, family, job or social set. And pride lies. Pride whispers to the over-spender “Even though you’ve maxed out all your credit cards, go ahead; you deserve it.” Pride whispers to the alcoholic or drug addict or porn addict, “Go ahead; you can stop anytime you want.” Pride whispers to the control freak, “If you don’t orchestrate their life, who will?” Pride whispers to the blamer, “It’s your parents’ fault, your ex’s fault, your boss’s fault, the government’s fault, for why you act like you do: it’s everybody’s fault but yours.” Pride whispers to self, “You deserve anything you want; you have a right to anything you want, regardless of who else gets hurt.” Some who teach “self-esteem” say “You need to do whatever it takes to make you feel good about yourself.” Well, just feeling good about ourselves can come from a multitude of sins. A person can feel good about himself in a state of intoxication, self indulgence, or rebellion. And more basically, it’s the lie of some supposed “right” to “feel good” without any positive accomplishment. No matter that passengers on the pride ride feel pretty good about themselves; at its root, pride is the ultimate self-delusion.
Of course, pride started a long time ago. In Isaiah 14:13-14 we see Satan was the first to take the pride ride when he said to himself, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.” I will…I will…I will… five times he names himself equal to God. He failed; and then, because “misery loves company,” Lucifer bamboozled Adam and Eve into taking the pride ride by leading them to doubt God’s goodness and loving care of them, and, in Genesis 3:5 by feeding them the same lie he’d fed himself: “And you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And that’s the very essence of pride: “I can be my own god. I can make my own decisions, my own judgments, my own laws and rules.”
Well, in today’s Gospel and throughout Scripture, we’re warned against pride. In Proverbs 16:18, Solomon observes, “Pride comes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall;” in other words, pride results in a false trust in self, a trust doomed to disastrous disappointment. Both James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 quote the warning of Proverbs 3:34 that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Psalm 73:6 says that “violence covers [the prideful] like a garment;” Proverbs 11:2 warns that “when pride comes, then comes shame,” because pride loses all sense of modesty, propriety, even of one’s own fundamental human dignity, in the pursuit of its own will.
Pride, you see, is destructive, because it opens the door to a host of other sins. By that undue attention on self, we give in to greed when we feel that self doesn’t have either “enough” or all it supposedly “deserves.” We give in to envy when we feel that self has not received its due, and/or honour has gone to someone “less deserving.” We most often give in to anger when self is offended. We give in to a critical spirit when self has been injured or feels challenged, and we feel resentment when our self-importance feels threatened. Pride also destroys our good qualities. Pride shrivels into dust “the fruit of the Spirit” St. Paul mentions in Galatians 5:22-23. Pride kills “love,” because pride is self-interest, while genuine and godly love is selfless interest in another. It kills “joy;” because pride is so easily offended, joy departs when pride is upset. It kills “peace” because pride leaves us with little or no inner peace with ourselves, and certainly none with others. It kills “patience,” because far from being forgiving, pride says, “I don’t have to put up with this!” It kills “kindness,” because pride is all about receiving, not giving. It kills “goodness,” because pride doesn’t care about good or evil, only about what it wants because it wants it. It kills “faithfulness,” because any and every commitment pride makes is always contingent upon convenience and self-interest, conditional upon whether nor not I’m getting what I want out of this deal. It kills “gentleness” or “meekness,” because pride wants to keep an iron grip of control on everything, while meekness surrenders control of one’s strength, one’s life, into the hand of God. And pride kills “self-control” because pride wants, accepts, and respects no limits on its own will.
Look: compare the two characters in the Lord’s parable. The Pharisee, like Lucifer, says “I” five times in his brief “prayer:” “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” The publican says it only once; and then it’s to pray, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He spoke of himself, never as the subject of every sentence, but only as the object of mercy. And the Greek text shows the publican calling himself, not “a sinner,” not just one among many, but “the sinner.” The only sinner he can see in his universe is himself, while the Pharisee sees sinners everywhere but in his mirror. And the basic difference between the two is the god they worship. The god the Pharisee worships is really himself; and he depends for salvation upon his own merits, having done righteous things. The publican worships the true and living God and depends solely upon the grace of God, crying for mercy. The Pharisee makes his claim based on his own deeds: “I tithe, fast, and pray;” the publican makes his claim for mercy based on the character of the God Who, says Psalm 103:8, “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.”
So, how do we avoid the damning trap of pride? Firstly, we confess and honestly repent of our sins. That’s the most obvious point of the parable. The publican “went down to his house justified” because he embraced the simple dynamic of 1 John 1:8-9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Secondly, also as a matter of honesty, we stop taking ourselves too seriously, as the Pharisee obviously did. In Romans 12:3, the Apostle says “to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly [accurately].” How? Thirdly, we compare ourselves upwards, not downwards. The Pharisee compared himself by looking down on “sinners.” But as Christians, says Ephesians 4:13, we’re called to look up and measure ourselves by “the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Am I and are you as holy, as loving, as self-giving and self-sacrificing, as Jesus? If not (and we’re not), we’ve got nothing to feel superior about…especially as we’re mindful, with Philippians 2:6-8, of how Jesus, “being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be clung to, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant” and becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Servants are not above their Master. Lastly, we ask God for cleansing, especially for that great unknown area, that huge blind-spot, we all have when it comes to pride. Like an iceberg, pride’s most dangerous part lies mostly beneath the surface. That’s why in Psalm 19:12 David wisely asks, “Cleanse me from secret faults.”
It’s by confession and repentance, by honesty, by humility, by complete dependence upon God’s forgiveness and grace that the publican finds freedom from pride and freedom for the life of a child of God. This Lent so fast approaching gives us the opportunity to do likewise. Will we? It’s your move, and mine.