We would all like to be the Publican in this parable but, not very deep down, we know that we are too like the Pharisee.
Whatever can it be that makes the Pharisee behave in such a blatant way? Well, what makes us rise to our own defence quicker than an unjust accusation? Perhaps the poor man has been accused of being a fraud or an impostor and so he cries out about all the boxes that he has so anxiously ticked there in the most public of places, a bit like an MP accused of claiming for his duck pond! In the story Jesus is painting with a big brush, creating an atmosphere almost to the point of caricature of the “feeling good” of the Pharisee, no one, surely, could feel quite as good as that man.
The publican however thinks himself totally loathsome in the sight of his neighbours and of God and so he seeks invisibility in a corner of the temple as he acknowledges his sin, coming back to God, not running away.
Here again we have a parallel to the parable of the two brothers, the one dragging his feet homeward when he has nowhere else to go and being embraced by the ever forgiving father and the other creating mayhem because he had never had a party in his honour. Another parallel is the dinner at the house of Simon, another Pharisee, when the sinful lady washes the feet of Jesus with her tears and pours myrrh over his head.
Neither the publican, the prodigal son nor the naughty lady run away from God, nor do they make excuses. We are called upon to love ourselves because God loves us but when we do that we need to try and see ourselves as God sees us; much loved but wayward. So here we come to the paradox of pride, illustrated by these two men. The virtue opposite to pride is humility and this is impossible to describe. Uriah Heep is certainly no example in his oft repeated assertion of being ‘umble. The Pharisee gives us a bit of a clue because he boasts about his good deeds, thus emptying them of their goodness; the publican is brought to his knees not out of remorse which is hurt pride but rather by the majesty of God before whom he is not worthy to stand.
In the days when I used to be on what were then called Selection conferences - but now BAPS - there used to be much psychobabble talked about candidates who showed low self-esteem It was almost equal to having a communicable disease but what or where is the self-esteem of the prodigal son, the woman washing the feet of Jesus or the publican in the corner of the temple? Is self-esteem how much or how little I think of me? Is it not sometimes mistaken for humility when in fact it is a sort of self-absorbed motive ostentatiously fighting for the lowest place? Pride always strikes us where we are weakest.
The manifestations of pride, the root of all sins, can be anywhere, even in deliberately being abject, a concentration on, even domination by concerns for me and the impression that I am making. Neville Gorton was Bishop of Coventry at the end of the 39-45 war; he had been a remarkable head of Blundell’s and being far too radical for the governors and, sad to say, some of the staff, he was removed, only to become Bishop of whom it was said at his memorial service “he forgot himself all over the place”. That is true humility.
So if true humility is the grace - and I use the word advisedly - to forget oneself, this leads on to the paradox of pride; it is the humble person who is aware not of his humility which to him seems almost non-existent but of his pride. The proud person, like the other brother, like Simon the Pharisee and like the Pharisee in today’s gospel never tires of proclaiming his humility, which is just about as far from forgetting oneself as is possible.
The message of Jesus is clear in all this; repent, don’t boast about it and admit it. If we really want to forget ourselves all over the place then we have to try and fill the vacuum and Jesus provides both the way and the filling. “Come to my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for you”. Between each of us and Jesus there is a shortfall, to say the least but his love is totally constant; again and again we go to him admitting our failures. I realised only the other day that I have been making my confession regularly for nearly 70 years; it doesn’t get any easier and forgetting myself is as difficult now as it was in childhood but if I didn’t try the result doesn’t really bear thinking about. Winston Churchill in the darkest part of the war sent two of his most importunate men to join the partisans in what was then Yugoslavia; they were his son Randolph and the author Evelyn Waugh. There this conversation took place, Randolph to Waugh: “Waugh, you are a swine”. He didn’t use that word but a similar one with which I will not desecrate these hallowed walls! “You pray every day and you are a swine, you go to mass every Sunday in that poxy village and any spy could reveal us to the enemy and you are a swine and you even confess your sins to that mangy priest and you are a swine". Waugh just looked at him and replied: “Randy, just think how much worse a swine I would be if I didn’t”. I rest my case.
Aidan Mayoss CR