Thank God, I’m not like the Pharisee. That may be our first reaction to the haughty prayer of the prideful Pharisee. (See Lk 18:9-14.) But if we fall into that kind of thinking, we commit the same sin as the Pharisee, reveal the pervasive nature of pride, and show why we should pay more attention to the publican than the Pharisee.
Consider how far-reaching and all-pervasive pride is. It is the sin of Satan, the thought that he could be like God; that he could have his extraordinary power and dignity without God. So, God responds to Satan’s pride by way of humble Saint Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?” Pride is also the sin of our first parents: the thought that they could have the things of God on their own terms, that they could grasp things for themselves rather than receive them as gifts. It’s ultimately a rebellion against the order of things, that He is God, and we are not.
Pride is the original sin also in the sense of setting the pattern for all others. There is no sin, from the pettiest to the most wicked, that doesn’t trace its origins to the raising of our intellect and will over God’s. Or, better, pride acts as a kind of spiritual disease, passed down from our first parents, that infects the entirety of the soul, corrupting even our acts of virtue.
As such, the Pharisee in the parable is an image of man himself – of each one of us. We suffer the same malady as he, if not always with the same symptoms. If we just sit back and judge him without examining ourselves, then we miss the point and – more to the point – become like him.
Notice two principal effects of pride. First, it isolates. “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself.” Of course, one ought not to speak a prayer to oneself. But the Pharisee is so turned in on himself that he doesn’t pray to God but to himself. It’s a funny thought if we didn’t often do the same thing. We might not be as haughty or self-congratulatory as the Pharisee, but we still suffer that effect of pride. Our prayer quickly becomes just a conversation with ourselves about ourselves. Instead of praying to God, we think about ourselves in front of him.
This helps us understand Lord’s dire words at the end of the parable: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” They are not so much a judgment as a statement about reality. The proud man so isolates himself that he leaves no opening for the One who alone can lift him up. It’s not that God doesn’t love him but that he has so isolated himself from God as to block the effects of that love. He will enter into eternity with just himself, which is humiliating.
Second, pride breeds a mindset of competition. “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee, and every proud person, draws his self-worth not from a relationship with God but from comparison to others. Indeed, he regards others only as competitors. He has adopted Uncle Screwtape’s instruction to his demon nephew: “To be is to be in competition.”
In the Pharisee’s case, this competition serves him well. He does do better things than the tax collector and so feels smug. But that same prideful spirit of competition can just as often produce the opposite effect. When we enter the comparison game and find ourselves less than others, then we can become not haughty or self-righteous but discouraged and insecure. Social media exacerbates this problem, as it only encourages people – especially the young – to compete in the comparison game. It’s a recipe for insecurity and anxiety. Pride – that focus on self – is the common root of both the arrogant and the insecure.
Ironically, the man our culture would consider suffering low self-esteem is the healthy one in the parable. “The tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector can actually speak to God. He has an awareness of the relationship and his place in it. Further, he acts on it, beating his breast to acknowledge and express his humble state.
A classic debate is whether humility is a matter of the intellect or the will. Is it a way thinking or a way of acting? We should see it as both: we need to change both our thought and our behavior. So, humility is first the proper estimation of oneself. It is the virtue by which we recognize the truth that we are nothing without God, but also that God has blessed us immensely.
At the same time, that adherence to truth and the awareness of who we are needs concrete acts of the will to strengthen it. Without proper behavior, the proper way of thinking will soon weaken. So, Mother Church leads her children in acts of humility, especially in the sacred liturgy. We acknowledge our sin, striking the breast as the tax collector does. We kneel and confess that we are not worthy. And so on. These are not just pious gestures and words but acts to help us interiorize the truth that we are nothing – and God has given us everything.
*Image: The Pharisee and the Publican (detail) by Barent Fabritius, 1661 [Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]. The whole (below) shows each man in the temple and leaving it, the tax collecter followed by an angel.