“O God, I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men…”
What’s the problem? Have you ever stopped to consider what it is that was really wrong with the prayer of the Pharisee? After all, it seems that he is thanking God, doesn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to do that? And, if God really gave him the grace to do these things — fasting and tithing — should he not thank God for it?
The Key. The key to the passage, to finding out what’s wrong with the Pharisee, is the introduction St. Luke gives us: “Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves as just, and despised others…” This tells us that there were two problems at the very start: the sin of pride whereby he trusted himself, and the sin of despising others, which offends charity. The former is often the the cause of the latter.
What he did wrong. Breaking it down, we find that there are three ways the Pharisee erred:
The way he thought of God. He was not truly grateful to God, otherwise he would have recognized God’s gifts and his dependence on them. “If my foot is moved, O Lord, thy mercy assisted me,” says the Royal Psalmist. Our Pharisee did not thank God for God’s grace; his thanksgiving was really only a papered over self-praise, like the vain young man who congratulates his mother that she produced such handsome offspring. Read the Psalms, the official prayerbook of God’s people for 3000 years. You will never find King David praying in this way. He thanked God for His gifts, adored him, acknowledged his own sinfulness and his utter dependence on God.
The way he thought of himself. Here, we see his pride. There are two utterances of St. Paul that come to mind by way of stern correctives to this kind of spiritual pride: “What hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (I Cor. 4:7). “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man may glory.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
The way he thought of his neighbor. He despised him. We are not to despise any man, for all — even the worst of men — are at least potentially children of God and heirs of heaven. While we may (and sometimes ought to) oppose the enemies of the Church and Christian social order quite vigorously, we must love them, too, for they are called to the same supernatural end whereunto we are called.
What we have to be grateful for. If the Pharisee really knew the gift of grace and really appreciated it for what it was, he would show true gratitude, see himself as he truly was (as the Publican did), and have charity for his neighbor, praying, working for his conversion, and recognizing in him what is good.
Be thankful for the gift of grace. Our Lord said to the Samaritan woman, “If thou hadst known the gift of God and who it is that is speaking to thee!” If only we knew what treasures there are inside us by grace. Then we would not be so stingy with God and so boastful of our own works.
Consider the gift of the indwelling of the Holy Trinity. St. Thomas explains that, but the gift of Sanctifying Grace, we possess God as the known in the knower and the loved in the lover. He is not merely present to us as He is present everywhere in the universe. God dwells in those who have faith, hope, and charity, “as in his own temple.” By grace, we possess the three eternal Persons of the Holy Trinity and can enjoy their presence at any moment.
In the silence of your soul stop to consider this at some point today and improve on the prayer of the Pharisee, mixing with true gratitude the humble dispositions of the Publican: “O God, I give Thee thanks for the unmerited gift of grace you have given me, a sinner.” Such humility — if it is sincere — creates a vacuum in our soul that God Himself will fill.