First Point.—The dispositions of the Pharisee. There were good and bad dispositions in his prayer. There was something good in him, because he went to the temple to pray. In this he imitated the example of Jesus. He did what the faithful observers of the law do, and what should be done after the example of the apostles and the saints. He understood the words of Holy Writ, "My house is a house of prayer." How many men are there today who pretend to be better than this Pharisee and still they do not even do as much as he did? And even you, when you go to the temple, is it true that you go there to pray?
The Pharisee gave thanks to God for His benefits. Jesus also thanked His Father in His prayers. This is a duty which the Church is careful to impress on us every day at Mass—" It is right and just to return thanks to God." The Pharisee understood the duty of gratitude. How many Christians who have been filled with God's choicest blessings do not understand this duty? Are you of this number?
The Pharisee was neither a thief, nor an adulterer, nor an unjust man. Consequently, he observed many of God's commandments—the seventh, which says, "Thou shalt not steal;" the sixth, which forbids adultery; in fact, he avoided what is forbidden by all the commandments, viz., injustice. In many respects he was not of the number of those of whom St. Paul says: "They who do these things shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."
This Pharisee did good works; he fasted two days in each week, thereby following the example of Jesus, the apostles, and all true Christians. He gave alms, paid his tithes on all he possessed, and in this imitated Abraham and fulfilled the law of Jesus. Where are the Christians, even among those who are reputed pious, who do as much as he did? We are obliged to praise and admire all this in the Pharisee, but here is what we must blame in him and the reason his prayer was rejected: He was of the number of those who consider themselves just, rely on themselves, and despise others. Spiritual pride, which is the worst of all, blinds the Pharisee to such an extent that he no longer regards himself as a sinner. This it is which corrupts all good works in their very essence and makes his prayer vicious. He is also guilty in his prayer; he sees nothing in himself which is reprehensible; in fact, there is nothing for which he may reproach or accuse himself, and he regards himself as entirely innocent. It is said, however, that "the just man first accuses himself." David conjured the Lord to pardon him for his hidden faults, and has not St. Paul spoken these words: "Although I do not feel guilty of anything, still I am not justified for that."
The Pharisee, under the very eye of God, enumerated his good works, not to refer them to the Author of every good, but to take pride in them. Instead of saying, "That which I am, I am by the grace of God," he refers all his good qualities to himself; he exaggerates and esteems them far more than they are really worth, and, under the veil of his presumptuous pride, it is not God whom he thanks, but himself.
The Pharisee commits a third fault by comparing himself with the publican, to despise him. By what right does he exalt himself the judge of his neighbor? St. Paul has said: "It is why, O man, you are inexcusable if you judge others; for in judging others you condemn yourself, since you do that which you condemn in them." It was not enough for the Pharisee to exalt himself above the publican, but in his pride he exalted himself above all men. "Lord, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men." With such dispositions, is it surprising that his good works were sterile, his piety rejected, and that he returned to his house without being justified! Is it not written: "God resists the proud and gives His grace to the humble"?
Second Point. The Dispositions of the Publican. In the prayer of the publican there is much to
praise and nothing to blame. And first remark his profound humility. He remains as far as he can away from the altar, and there accuses himself before God. At the sorrowful sight of his faults, he does not dare to approach the sanctuary; he considers himself unworthy to appear in the presence of the Lord, he is so convinced of his unworthiness. Accustom yourself to modesty, and do not strive to obtain preference; here on earth, the last place is the best. The divine Master has said: "Whosoever humbles himself shall be exalted."
While the Pharisee was standing erect with his eyes raised to the altar, the poor publican, ashamed and humiliated at his criminal life, trembles in the presence of the Lord and Judge and dares not to lift his eyes to heaven. You are also a sinner; therefore imitate a repentant sinner. As the publican, be penetrated by a salutary shame at the remembrance of your faults, and as he entertain a holy respect in presence of the God whom you have offended and who shall one day be your Judge. Admire, in the second place, the publican's spirit of penance. He strikes his breast, and by this action he loudly confesses that he has merited the chastisements of God. He strikes his own breast because he accuses himself, without striving to cast his faults on another. You also have sinned, and by your sin you have incurred the enmity of God. Do you wish to obtain pardon ? Strike your breast also, and, humbly at the knees of the priest in the tribunal of penance, do not fear to say: "It is through my fault, through my fault, it is through my great fault that I have sinned by thought and word and deed and omission." The humble publican adds to this exterior act a prayer which comes from a heart which is truly contrite: "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!" Thus it is he speaks to God, and not to himself, as the Pharisee did; he does not enumerate his good works with complacency; he only accuses himself, avows himself a sinner, and asks for mercy and pardon. When you are before God do not rely on your good works and your merits to attract His graces, but recall and tell Him, in the bitterness of your heart, all your sorrows and faults. Let your lips frequently repeat the humble prayer of the publican: "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!" and then there shall flow from your eyes those tears of penance which shall merit for you grace and pardon.
And now make an examination of your own conduct. Indeed, you detest the culpable conduct and the haughty hypocrisy of the Pharisee, but have you been careful to avoid it in your own life? As he, you are, perhaps, exempt from the gross vices; in your conduct, as in his, we may see evidences of good works ; but are you wholly exempt from pride, envy, ambition, and those other spiritual vices, with which the heart of this presumptuous man was filled? Put away all such sentiments, which are so unworthy of a Christian, and strive to imitate the example of the poor publican! Pray as he did, in the church and out of it, with the same humility, the same fervor, and then rest assured that your prayers shall be heard always.
Source: Short Instructions on the Feasts of the Year, Imprimatur 1897