In listening to this morning’s gospel, we perhaps find ourselves spontaneously identifying with the Tax Collector, and not with the proud Pharisee. Objectively, of course, this would be to acknowledge the truth of our situation, whereas adopting the pompous attitude of the Pharisee would be delusional. However, it is probably closer to the truth to admit that consciously, or unconsciously, we tend to vacillate between the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. Usually, we gravitate towards the Tax Collector after a renewed experience of our weakness and sinfulness—perhaps relapsing into some sinful behavior that we thought we had finally overcome.
And it is precisely this experience of having made progress by overcoming some dominant fault, failing, or behavior, that has us unwittingly veering towards the Pharisee and his prideful disdain for the Tax Collector. To the degree that this occurs, we betray the fact that our earlier identifying with the Tax Collector did not reflect true humility, or a deep sense of our unworthiness before God. Rather, it was that wounded pride that can feel like humility, but is really closer to shame and a simple disgust with oneself for having failed oneself—rather than God.
Nevertheless, it is one of the daunting challenges of our spiritual journey that even true humility and an authentic identification with the deepest sentiments of the Tax Collector can, without vigilance, yield to the prideful complacency of the Pharisee. Unfortunately, there is a paradoxical sense in which this temptation to adopt the superior attitude of the Pharisee can actually become more intense (though also subtler) the holier we become. The Desert Fathers warn against this very thing and more than one spiritually-advanced monk was seduced by pride because of his holiness. Then, no longer relying completely on God’s grace, he lost all that he had spent so much effort and time in acquiring.
It is for this reason, that spiritual masters, like Saint Gregory the Great, suggest that in the course of our spiritual development and growth in virtue, God sometimes leaves us with a sin or weakness that, despite our persevering efforts, we are unable to overcome. Despite our frustration (or discouragement) this can actually be a mercy through which God protects us from the death-dealing scourge of pride and vainglory by which we can lose everything.
So, until, like Saint Paul, we have finished our race and the time of our departure from this life is at hand, we cannot relax our vigilance and must always keep our distance from the Pharisee—even (and especially) when God’s grace preserves us from sin. Instead, let us make permanent friends with the Tax Collector, knowing that when, like Saint Paul, we have finished the race and kept the faith, we too will receive the crown of righteousness and be forever lifted up in glory, remembering that whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.