The Gospel for October 23rd, 2016: “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”
Reflection: American Pride
There are many places in the gospels where Jesus is hard on the Pharisees. I imagine this was quite shocking to first century Jews who would have seen them as models of holiness. As we see in this Lukan parable, Jesus makes it clear that many of them did not have the love of God’s people in their hearts, but rather a love of self—a deeply seated pride and vanity. The Pharisee in the parable approaches God in prayer with gratitude not for God’s blessings, but for his superiority over others. His heart is not open to the reality that all his gifts come from the Creator and that humility is the proper state for approaching and knowing the Lord. In contrast, the stereotypical sinner, the tax collector, the first century villain, approaches God fully aware he is a sinner who can only beg for God’s mercy (10-13). Despite his faults, he approaches God with humility. Jesus makes the moral quite clear, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (14).
Today, it is easy for many Americans to miss our similarity with the pride of the Pharisees. Unlike first century Jews, we have few illusions that even the most revered members of our free society, surrounded by temptations, sometimes indulge, in sinful behaviors. Whether it is the adulterous politician or the priest who drinks too much or the CEO who smokes marijuana to come down from the pressure at work, we are frequently reminded of the fallen nature of our heroes and leaders. In this context, we may identify more quickly with the tax collector in this parable because so many of our sins our public.
However, pride is insidious. Although we may not pray like the Pharisees, giving thanks for our superiority, we still may hold that pride in our hearts, perhaps even unknowingly. Americans have been raised on The American Dream, which we hold up as both an ideal and a right. Fundamental to that dream is the notion of “upward mobility,” usually associated with a belief in meritocracy. That is to say that those who do the best work deserve to get ahead. This ideology is underpinned further by the gospel of hard work that was sung by our Puritan forefathers and used by some immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to achieve versions of the American Dream that firmly entrenched this notion in our culture. So as Americans, we think that when we achieve superior levels of economic, educational, and demographic status, we deserve it. We have permission to be proud of ourselves.Thus begins the slide, like the Pharisee in the parable, into thinking we are better than others, usually in the misguided belief it was through our own efforts. I frequently find myself enthralled and entrapped by this ideology. Despite an awareness of the many sins in my life, I often miss the biggest one of all because I still compare myself to the standards of American society instead of to the model of the saints. It is an old habit that dies hard.
So what do we do? Do we all take vows of poverty and move someplace else? I don’t think so. I think Jesus is the answer as taught by the gospels and the Church. We need to live the Christian life in the midst of the culture we live in. But there is something we don’t do. I don’t think we try to Americanize the Church. In other words, we don’t try to substitute the ideals of American democracy for the doctrine of the Church. As much as we would love to escape the crises of conscience that exist over so many issues such abortion or gay marriage, we don’t pretend the solutions are political. Instead, we approach these dilemmas with the humility of the tax collector and turn to Jesus humbly in prayer and ask for His guidance and mercy. Like Mary in the Magnificat, we are only grateful to be ‘handmaids’ of God’s will, instead of self-pronounced saviors, just because we have been blessed with certain comforts or successes in this American life. My fellow Americans, pray that we may be humble in spite of our desire to be otherwise, despite of our American-ness. I need those prayers in my struggle as an American Catholic. I need those prayers in my struggle as a Christian.