We probably all have long lists of things we would never do. I would never rob a bank, or attack a helpless person, or run off with the pool man. It is beneath my dignity to cheat on a test or purchase clothing I intend to wear only once and then return for refund. God, am I good! But then, I have never been financially hopeless; I have never been under attack myself; and I have never had a pool man. I have never been desperate enough to feel the need to cheat or to finagle clothing. God, am I good? Or have I just been sheltered from some of the hardships that many others face? How might I act if I were in their difficult situations?
It is very easy for people who conform to acceptable patterns of behavior to sit in judgment and consider themselves better than those who do not. This is not to imply that they should disregard these standards. On the contrary, societies would not survive or thrive if they did not insist on standards for living. Rather, it is to suggest that there is a difference between being righteous and being self-righteous. Truly righteous or virtuous people know that they too are capable of contemptible behavior. They know that it is only because of the goodness of God that they have been spared situations in which their weaknesses would have overpowered them. The truly righteous are fundamentally humble.
The self-righteous, on the other hand, take full credit for their admirable actions. They do not consider the influence that circumstances may have on their behavior. They are proud of themselves; they boast of their adherence to moral principles; and they look down on those who unsuccessfully struggle with life in ways that they do not.
We would all benefit from reflecting on whether we are indeed as “righteous” as we claim. Are we genuinely virtuous, or have we been preserved from circumstances that might bring out the worst in us? Is our goodness tried and true, or is it simply the habitual behavior expected of “people like us”? The challenge of the satan in the Book of Job might be directed toward any one of us: “Is it for nothing that Job is God-fearing? Have you not surrounded him and his family and all that he has with your protection? ...But now put forth your hand and touch everything that he has, and surely he will blaspheme you to your face” (Job 1:10-11). In other words, take away the safeguards, and what will result?
Only those who can acknowledge their own human weaknesses feel the need to turn to God in prayer with sentiments of humility. They know that any goodness they might exhibit is itself a gift from God. But those who stand before God and others with the attitude “Look what I have made of myself” will hardly realize the need to ask for God’s help in doing good. They will presume that they can manage it by themselves.
The Pharisee in today’s Gospel very likely did live a life devoid of greed, dishonesty and adultery. He probably did fast and tithe. But he did not realize that it was the goodness of God that lifted him up so that he could act in this righteous manner. He believed instead that it was his own goodness that lifted him up above others. On the other hand, in order to gain a livelihood, the tax collector probably extorted mony from taxpayers. He was a sinner, and he knew it. But he also knew that only God could lift him up. It was his humble demeanor that earned God’s praise.
The passage from the Second Letter to Timothy shows that in some ways Paul resembles both the Pharisee and the tax collector. Like the Pharisee, he boasts of his accomplishments. He has competed well; he has finished the race; he has kept the faith; he has earned a crown of righteousness. Paul never denies the character of his commitment or the extent of his ministerial success. But like the tax collector, he knows the source of his ability to accomplish these things: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” According to Paul, all the glory belongs to God. Without God, Paul would have remained an enemy of the infant church.
In the body of Christ there is no room for arrogance. We are all limited human beings with weaknesses that can trip us up if we are not vigilant. We are all poor and lowly, in need of the protection and strength that come to us from God. We are all sinners dependent on divine mercy. How foolish it is to think that we are better than others. How wrong it is to treat those others with disrespect or disdain. The last words of the Gospel reading are a warning to us all. They alert us to God’s propensity to turn human considerations upside down: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted.