He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity– greedy, dishonest, adulterous– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
When you start counting your righteous deeds, be careful. They will soon become your credentials. When that happens, you take the place of God. Righteousness is a pure gift of God. That same gift, working in us, enables us to bear fruits of righteousness. The seed of righteousness is planted in us as a free gift of grace. Whatever good comes out of us is a fruit of that original seed of righteousness. Righteousness is not something you count. It is the air you breathe. You freely receive and freely use, always been humble and thankful. Try counting your breath and see how quickly you get exhausted. If you begin to list your righteous deeds as if they were your own hard won credentials, you become god. When you pray, you pray to yourself. At this point, when you pray, you become an obstacle to yourself.
Unconsciously, you let God leave the picture. Yes, you thank him for his blessings. But unknown to you, you are on your own: a kind of independence from God. You are of age. You have acquired righteousness to the point where it is now yours. The prayer of such a person does little to move the gates of heaven. This seems to be the problem of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12: “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity– greedy, dishonest, adulterous– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” Notice how the Lord says that the Pharisee prayed to himself. He was, perhaps, right to recognize that he had gained solid grounds on the spiritual front. Yet, the very acts of righteousness he is able to perform have blinded him. He feels he is on top of the world. Everyone is “the other,” the “unlike-me’s.” Self-acquired righteousness does not save. On the contrary, it even can be a hindrance to spiritual growth. One harmful fruit of this kind of “unholy” righteousness is that one begins to despise others who are struggling with weakness.
That Pharisee in the parable is me. It is, perhaps, you too. After a while of walking with God and growing in the faith, we too often fall into the same problem. It is all too easy too begin to list our “righteous” credentials: I am a cradle Catholic; I went to a Catholic school; I am a confirmed Catholic; I obey the Magisterium; I am pro . . . I am anti . . . I pray my rosary everyday; I fast once a week; I observe this and that, and so forth. As already mentioned, when one begins to list “credentials of righteousness,” he makes himself the owner and originator of righteousness. This kind of righteousness is an obstacle to heaven, because it originates in pride.
After his conversion to Christ, Paul was quick to identify and avoid this temptation. He writes to the Philippians: “If anyone else thinks he can be confident in flesh, all the more can I. Circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage, in observance of the law a Pharisee, in zeal I persecuted the church, in righteousness based on the law I was blameless. (But) whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith” (Phil 3:4-9). Evidently, Paul too had “credentials of righteousness,” if he wanted to boast. But he chose to boast in the grace of God freely bestowed on him for righteousness: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1Cor 15:10).
One needs to be careful not to let righteous acts become an obstacle to his spiritual growth. No one appears before God with his own righteous credentials. Only the mercy of God makes us pleasing and acceptable in God’s sight. This is where the Pharisee in the parable was in trouble. He appeared before God as one who did not need mercy. He, perhaps, thought of himself as a master of the spiritual life, a kind of spiritual guru. The tax collector, however, acknowledged his need for mercy and was justified. The truth is that the mercy of God is the common denominator that sustains all human beings, saints and sinners alike. To pretend that one has gone past the need for mercy is tantamount to spiritual folly and ignorance. When one slips into this unfortunate condition, soon he begins to pray to himself, as the Pharisee did. And we know that prayer to oneself based on presumed auto-righteousness does not move the gates of heaven. The Lord is drawn to the humble and lowly of heart who acknowledge their continuous need for grace and mercy. May we belong to this latter category.
Let us be grateful and humble for the good we are able to accomplish by grace. May the Lord save us from the temptation to think that we are spiritual masters and mistresses. May the Lord save us from the temptation to look down on those who are not as “spiritual” as were are. Finally, may the Lord help us to throw away our “spiritual credentials,” so that only Christ Jesus will become our credential. Amen.
Invitation to pray:
Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner. I surrender to you all my “righteous credentials.” You alone are my righteousness. Let your grace and mercy reign in my life. To you be all glory and adoration, forever and ever. Amen