Pharisee and Publican

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior… He has looked with favor on His lowly servant… The Almighty has done great things for me; holy is His name. He has mercy on those who fear Him. He has scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly… He has remembered His promise of mercy.

Who said these words? The immaculate Virgin, paragon of all virtues. The Queen of all the saints. Holier than the highest angels. She exalts only God. She recognizes: Goodness, soundness, righteousness–it comes from God. Justice is God’s. [Spanish]

The gospel passage for Sunday Mass cuts very close to home. Two men went up to the Temple. To God’s house, where priests offered sacrifice on the altar. The special building for prayer and communion with the Almighty.

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

Sounds like church. Sounds like us. The passage could just as easily read: “Two people went to Mass to pray.”

We read: One was a Pharisee. The other a tax collector.

The Pharisees. They knew the ancient Scriptures. Honest Pharisees obeyed them—or at least tried to. The good Pharisees lived for the God of Abraham, longing to keep His commandments and please Him in every way.

Even though they couldn’t exactly keep every commandment. Since the practical circumstances had changed significantly since the Law of Moses was originally written down.

Since Moses’ time, the Temple had been built, then destroyed, then re-built, then desecrated, then re-consecrated. The Hebrews had captured Jerusalem, lost it, re-taken it, then lost it again. The nation had united under one king, then divided under two, then gotten exiled, then restored, then conquered, then partially restored—under a half-Jewish monarch. Who then died, and his children divided up the kingdom, as clients of the Roman emperor.

All the Jews didn’t live near Jerusalem anymore, or even in the Holy Land. Moses never wrote anything about synagogues. Or about Pharisees or rabbis, for that matter. The Pharisees were trying to make ancient Judaism coherent in the cosmopolitan Roman empire.

moses_ten_commandmentsTax collectors, on the other hand, lived in a different “psychological space,” so to speak. Pharisees and zealots regarded tax collectors as totally compromised, as traitors.

But the tax collectors probably thought: “Okay, fair enough. Compromised, yes. We have divided loyalties. But don’t we all really? This is the world we live in. The Romans may be foreigners and pagans. But they know how to build aqueducts and keep the peace.”

So maybe we could say: Two people came to Mass to pray. An abstract-minded purist. And a compromised realist. Both came to Mass to commune with the one, true God, Who transcends everything earthly.

One of them prayed honestly; the other did not.

The one saw compromises everywhere, except in himself. “Gosh, all these other people fudge the truth, and long only to fill their bellies, and can’t keep their marital commitments. Thank You, God, that I am not like them! By following some key parts of Your Law, I maintain pure righteousness!”

The Lord might reasonably have asked the Pharisee: “Why did you come up to the Temple in the first place, My child? Did you think I needed you to inform Me, regarding your virtues?

“Do I not see all and know all? Did I not give you clarity and strength of will, in the first place, to enable you to remain faithful in marriage? Have I not given you enough wealth that you can tithe without feeling any pinch? Do you not understand that without My generous blessings, you would be a million times worse than the most-depraved tax-collector? And that, without the economic benefit of the Roman Empire, you would right now be cursing me like Job?”

Meanwhile, the practical realist, compromised as he was, managed an honest prayer.

“O great and mysterious God, behold a compromised man among compromised men. Have mercy on me. Have mercy on us. You are great; we are not. Have mercy. We don’t deserve Your blessings. But keep them coming another day, anyway—if it be Your will.”

Of the two men in the Temple, who prayed more like Abraham? Or more like the holy Virgin? Who saw the world according to the wisdom of the cross?

Grunewald the Small Crucifixion

He loves us this much. We are this bad. This is what we deserve, to die with nothing. He took it upon Himself, for us. We are unworthy sinners, whom God loves out of pure kindness. May He have mercy on us. To Him be all the glory.

3 thoughts on “Pharisee and Publican

  1. That was beautiful. A total gut punch of reality. You have the gift of never wandering into cliche’. Thank Almighty God for your sincerity and authenticity. You speak the truth no matter the consequences. Your papacy will be legendary. (Nice historical Cliffs Notes, btw, Scholar.)

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