Jesus then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ 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.’ 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.”

– Luke 18:9-14

parable-of-the-pharisee-and-tax-collectorWhen I hear this reading it’s easy for me to rehearse the same prayer. “I’m sorry God for [insert the same things I think I need to change in my life] and I’m sorry for being arrogant about [insert the same things I think I need to change in my life].” But it’s easy for me to avoid praying about the things God knows I need to change. After I’ve made my surface-level repentance, I can dwell on the people whom I judge to be Pharisees and think, “Well so-and-so needs to hear this parable. They’re so judgmental and rigid.” Sometimes I’m not even aware that I’m thinking this. It’s the sordid prayer of a pharisaical tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner… Oh, and thank you for not making me judgmental like that rigid, unloving, and arrogant Pharisee over there.”

We all struggle with this to varying degrees. We all have good intentions and strive to serve others and treat them with kindness, but then a conversation or interaction will elicit disdain, frustration, or anger on our part. Someone posts on Facebook about a political or religious topic that ignites uncharitable responses; there’s that co-worker who just gets under our skin no matter what they say; or there’s the family member whom we think should be more agreeable and view things the way we do. We try to respond graciously, but there’s an impulse inside that wants to ignore these people by simply dismissing them as judgmental, arrogant, and unloving. It’s discomforting how easily we can miss that we are in fact being those things of which we accuse another.

Seeing the Pharisee in ourselves
Pope Francis is essential on this matter. In The Way of Humility, Francis points to Dorotheus of Gaza, a 6th-7th century Christian, as a guide when dealing with these emotions, responses, and situations. Francis is aware that when we encounter someone we deem rigid, unkind, and arrogant, it’s easy to think of them as a Pharisee who needs to humble themselves. Using the parable above, we think, “If only this person could hear this parable and realize how arrogant and unkind they are.” Instead of accusing and judging this person, Francis asks us to reflect on how this person has revealed to us our uncharitable actions and thoughts. He quotes Dorotheus who writes:

“This person [who sees someone else as judgmental and flawed] is like a wheaten loaf that is beautiful on the outside, but when it is cut open is found to be moldy inside. They thought they were at peace, but there was a passion inside them that they did not know about or did not think important. A single word from this other person brought to light the moldiness in their heart.”

And then Francis adds one more thing (looking to Dorotheus again). He says we ought to repent for the moldiness in our heart and “be grateful to his brother for having been the cause of this improvement.” When I first heard this I immediately thought, “Be grateful?! They’re the one who needs to repent! I’m the humble one!” And thus, the moldiness of my own rigidity, arrogance, and judgmentalism is uncovered.

This is what Francis calls “the way of humility.” This way does not mean we ignore injustice or wrongdoing, but first and foremost we are called to see our own ‘moldiness’ and invite God to heal it. We may even become grateful for those individuals who have challenged us, and we may even recognize that God has placed this person in our life that we may be saved.

Take time (even if briefly) to pray over this passage and consider journaling your response:

  • Read slowly Luke 18:9-14.
  • When you read the description of the pharisee, who comes to mind?
  • What emotions arise when you think of this person? Is there any “moldiness” that’s revealed?
  • To what is the Holy Spirit calling you in response to this person?