THE INCONSISTENCY OF THE MERIT CERTIFICATE BEFORE GOD – 27th October 2019, 30th Sunday In Ordinary Time

Luke 18:9-14

– Fr. Fernando Armellini SCJ
Claretian Publications, Macau

In the outset, we dislike the hypocritical, disagreeable, proud and presumptuous Pharisee. Our sympathies are all for the publican who, poor guy, did something wrong but has a golden heart.

If we reread the Pharisee’s prayer without prejudice, we realize that we are faced with an upright, honest person of integrity. He does even more than what is prescribed in the law. He is proud of his righteousness, contrasts himself with other persons and distances himself from sinners. It is a nuisance but no serious faults. Let us willingly forgive a little bit of pride.

In contrast to the Pharisee, the publican attracts our sympathies for his humility initially. However, he is a certified thief, a hated exploiter, a jackal. He is loaded with sins. The law stipulates how this tax collector can be saved. He must give back all that he has stolen plus 20% interest and to immediately abandon his infamous profession. He is irredeemable!

How can Jesus, then, condemn a person who has behaved well and declare the sinner, just? The truth is: the judgment is not about the moral behavior of the two. Jesus does not say that the publican is good and the Pharisee bad and a liar. He does not say that one is fundamentally virtuous while the other is a sinner who managed to hide his sins. He only says that the first “was justified,” that is, was made just by God. The second returned home as before, with all his undeniable good works but without saying that God was able to make him just. This is the point.

What is the Pharisee’s error? He makes an error because he puts himself before God in a wrong way. He goes to the temple carrying with him a load of good works accumulated with rigorous penance and scrupulous observance of all the commandments. He is convinced that this is sufficient to merit him righteousness. As if he would say to the Lord: look what a marvelous life I’m presenting! To tell you the truth: I astonished you! You did not expect to have such a faithful worshiper. Now, declare that I am “just”!

Before God, everyone finds oneself empty-handed. S/he has nothing of her/himself to show. S/he has nothing that makes him worthy of divine complacency.

The publican is not a model of a virtuous life. He is a poor man who knows he can offer to God only his “broken and torn down heart” He does not even run the risk of an illusion that good acts give him the right to lay claim because he has none. He is empty handed.

Translated by Fr. John Ledesma SDB
Abridged by Fr. Jijo Kandamkulathy CMF