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God doesn’t look at merit certificates

The parable in today’s gospel is directed at Christians of all times. The idea of gaining merit before God is profoundly rooted in our thought patterns. 

From the outset, we dislike the hypocritical, disagreeable, proud and presumptuous Pharisee. Our sympathies are all with the publican who, poor guy, did something wrong, but has a heart of gold. 

Pay attention to the Pharisee who, assuming the normal attitude of a pious Jew, prays standing up.

If we reread his prayer without prejudice, we realise that we are faced with an upright, honest person of integrity. But he does even more than what is prescribed in the law. 

He is proud of his righteousness, contrasts himself with other people and distances himself from sinners. It is a nuisance, but no serious fault. Let us willingly forgive a little bit of pride.

In contrast with the Pharisee, initially the publican attracts our sympathies for his humility.

However, he is a certified thief, a hated exploiter, a jackal. The law stipulates how this tax collector can be saved. He must give back all that he has stolen plus 20 per cent interest and immediately abandon his infamous profession. 

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 behaviour of the two.

Jesus does not say that the publican is good or the Pharisee bad or 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 went away 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 shortcoming? He puts himself before God in the wrong way. He goes to the temple carrying with him a load of good works accumulated through rigorous penance and the scrupulous observance of all the commandments.

He is convinced that this is a sufficient merit certificate.

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.  

The Pharisee must not renounce his blameless life, but his false image of God as an accountant, who takes note of good and bad works, a distributor of prizes and punishments.

From this deformed image of God other troubles come, foremost is the need to create a barrier between righteous and sinners.  

Whoever thinks of accumulating merit before God inevitably ends up despising others. He does not want to have anything to do with the wicked.

He would like to enlist God in his group, in the righteous club. He would like to make of God a Pharisee. God does not fit here. If God has to choose, God would side with the sinner.



Father Fernando Armellini SCJ
Claretian Publications