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The Wings of Humility: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Fr. Luke Veronis

“Better is the person who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.”

In other words, the Desert Fathers are teaching us that our salvation and our good standing with God does NOT depend on whether we sin or not. In reality, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. The foundation upon which we begin a serious journey towards God and His Heavenly Kingdom must begin with the knowledge of our own spiritual situation. The philosopher Socrates taught us to “know yourself.” Knowing oneself in the fullest sense implies knowing our shortcomings and sins as well as knowing the divine potential we all possess. Such self-knowledge is essential for any mature Christian who wants to journey towards God.

We fall into one of the great deceptions of life, a lie that hinders any spiritual growth, when we fool ourselves into thinking that our good deeds are worthy of God’s blessing and salvation. This is why the Desert Fathers warned, “Better is the person who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.” Paradise cannot be earned by good deeds or gained through our efforts, no matter how worthy they may be. If any of us think of ourselves as righteous and deserving of heaven, then we walk on a very dangerous precipice.

Our Lord Jesus Christ offers the Kingdom of Heaven as a gift to those who turn to Him in humility and love. Of course, sincerely turning to God implies doing many good deeds of unconditional love for people all around us. Good deeds and a life of unconditional love play a central part in our journey towards God. Yet, we must take care not to think any good deeds earn us the Kingdom of Heaven. We must beware that we can spoil our good deed of love with an arrogant or self-righteous spirit. This is why St. Kosmas Aitolos instructs us, “A Christian needs two wings to fly to paradise: humility and love.”

We see this lesson of humility most clearly illustrated today in the Gospel story of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. A Pharisee was a well respected religious leader of the Jews who strove to follow every detail of the Mosaic law. He prayed daily. He gave 10% of his money to the Temple. He fasted twice a week. He tried to stay away from any evil acts and tried to obey God’s law. From an external perspective, the Pharisee was a model Jew during the time of Jesus.

Yet in the story, Christ does not praise the Pharisee. He condemns him! Why? Because the Pharisee spoils all his good deeds through his arrogance and self-righteous pride. The Pharisee thinks highly of himself because of his good actions, and self-righteously judges and condemns others.

While the Pharisee highlighted his own external behaviors, he unfortunately did not “know himself” well. The Pharisee lauded his own meticulous obedience to the Law, yet God looked within his heart and found the cancer of arrogance and pride eating away his soul.

In the eyes of God, pride is the first and greatest sin, because pride fools us to believe we are truly good in and of ourselves. The Bible teaches that only One is good, and that One is God Himself. All others, no matter how much good we do, still fall short of perfect goodness, because we constantly sin in our thoughts, words, and deeds, as well as in our actions and inactions.

“Better is the person who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.”

The Tax-Collector, in comparison to the Pharisee, was truly a miserable sinner. Tax-collectors were dishonest and dishonorable people. During the time of Christ, tax-collectors were held in such disrepute that the Jews equated them with murderers and adulterers. This tax-collector surely stole from others plenty of times, and lived a sinful life. Yet in this story he comes to the point of “knowing himself.” He enters into the Temple, and unlike the Pharisee who walks to the front praying in a loud voice for all to hear, the tax-collector stays in a back corner, falling on his face in humility, and quietly crying tears of repentance with a simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Although the tax-collector sinned in countless ways, he turned back to God with the greatest virtue – humility. Humility implies knowing oneself – knowing the evil that is within you, as well as the divine potential waiting to burst forth. Therefore, the tax-collector approached God by hoping solely in His great mercy, and believing that even he, a great sinner, could become once again a child of God!

One danger we must take care to avoid, however, is to misunderstand the true nature of humility and repentance. When some flippantly say that they can do anything they want, because our merciful God will forgive them, such people deceive themselves and show an utter lack of understanding repentance and humility. Authentic repentance does not imply simply saying “I’m sorry” and then continuing to sin. Sincere repentance entails deep self-reflection, piercing self-understanding, and a radical decision to change the direction of our old way of life, turning once again towards the Lord.

This contrast of humility vs. arrogance, repentance vs. self-assurance, and contrition vs. self-righteousness leaves us much to reflect upon as we prepare for our upcoming Lenten Journey. Great Lent is only three weeks away, and this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector is our wake-up call to start preparing for Clean Monday on March 11th. We have three weeks before we begin our 40-day journey of fasting and spiritual effort, and a first step in our preparation is knowing ourselves, looking within, and evaluating our inner attitude. Do we possess the spirit of the Pharisee – proud of our deeds, self-assured in our own efforts, and judgmental towards others? Or are we cultivating the spirit of the tax-collector – aware of our sinfulness, humble before God, and contrite in our repentance?

Jesus warned us, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Desert Fathers summarized this by saying, “Better is the one who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than the person who has not sinned and thinks himself righteous.”