Today’s Gospel is not meant to be a contrast between the righteousness of the Pharisee and the unrighteousness of the Publican. If it is viewed in this context we miss the point of the story; the story teaches us what not to do in order to gain exaltation.

The Pharisees were not bad people. They came from middle-class families and were popular and highly respected among Jews. Numbering around 6000 they were an important and powerful religious group of religious leaders. In today’s Gospel the Pharisee’s reference to alms, tithes and fasts, is not false advertising. He speaks the truth. The Pharisees are respected for their morality, ethics and pious lives.

The Publicans are as bad as their reputation makes them to be. Fellow Jews who saw them as traitors and lackeys who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans disliked them. Publicans, also called tax collectors were hated because of their dishonest practice of charging high taxes to enrich themselves at the expense of the ordinary citizen. Most Jews avoided them because of their association with the conquering power and their friendship with Gentiles.

In today’s Gospel the Pharisee goes about the wrong way in exalting himself. He tries to exalt himself by criticising the Publican.

The Pharisee’s attitude displays a common problem that affects some of us if not all of us. A fear and insecurity that causes us to be condemnatory of others.

Most of us if not all of us believe that when we pull down others we will look better ourselves. To have to proclaim that we are better than others betrays an inner fear that we are not. This is the Pharisee’s problem and my problem and your problem.

The Pharisee engages in a subtle form of character assassination. His aim is to destroy the Publican. “I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” 

Seeking to pull others down in order to elevate ourselves is a waste of human energy; it is self-destructing. It is predicated on the thesis that in order to succeed we must destroy other people. We are trapped in a cycle of destruction, which says destroy other people in order to succeed.

The Pharisee’s behaviour in today’s gospel is built on fear, insecurity and suspicion. These three ‘evils’ drive us to destroy our neighbours whom we perceive to be threats to our egos and better than us.

The act of destroying the nieghbour is experienced in the work place as we jostle for promotion and destroy co-workers; it is part of the social landscape as we vie for status and prominence in the society; it is seen in our actions which tarnish the good names of people; it is present whenever we behave like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel.

We must also be aware of the destruction done in the name of religion. Christians against Muslims and vice versa. Churches engage in it to score cheap points and gain new members. Religious people who perceive themselves to be righteous seek at times to destroy the perceived ‘unrighteous.’ We are all part of the cycle of destruction.

Sometime soon we shall be involved in the process of electing a new government. Observe carefully what will be said and as you observe you will hear and see once again the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. “I thank God that I am not as other men are.”

When we engage in acts that aim to destroy our neighbours we compromise the biblical instruction found in Leviticus.

"'Do not go about spreading slander among your people. "'Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour's life. I am the LORD. "'Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in his guilt. "'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.

The parable ends: “He who humbles himself will be exalted." How do we exalt ourselves? Not by destroying our neighbours but by acknowledging their goodness and affirming their human dignity in a spirit of humility. 

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