“Every one that exalts himself shall be humbled, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.” 
Today’s Gospel is one of several in which our Lord picks a stereotype that all of His listeners will recognize, and then tells a story about someone who should fit the stereotype but then turns out to be quite different. For example, most of Israel disliked the Samaritans—they were foreign invaders who had taken over a large part of northern Israel. No Jew expected anything good from a Samaritan—so our Lord told a story about a “Good Samaritan,” whose concern for an injured Jewish man far exceeded the concern of respectable Jews for the injured man. The point being that goodness is not determined by social category, and that we should all do good regardless of our social standing.
Today’s Gospel invokes two other stereotypes familiar to the listeners—the Pharisee and the Publican.
The Pharisees were the descendants of the Machabees. About 300 years before Christ, Israel was occupied by the Selucids—one of the successor kingdoms of Alexander the Great. These invaders refused to allow the Jews to observe their own proper laws and customs, causing the family of the Machabees to lead a military rebellion which, ultimately, restored Jewish observances to Israel and to the Temple in Jerusalem. Even today, the exploits of the Machabees are celebrated in the December feast of Chanukah. As descendants of the Machabees, the Pharisees held a respected position in Jewish society at the time of Christ.
The publicans were tax collectors. Now, nobody likes to pay taxes, but even worse, the publicans collected taxes for the hated Roman invaders—taxes that paid for the “bread and circuses” back in imperial Rome, but which paid for very little for those being taxed in Israel. To make matters worse, the publicans were rumored to extort even greater taxes than those demanded by Rome, lining their own pockets with the excess.
If the stereotypes of Pharisee and publican were correct, the Pharisee should be the hero of the tale, and the publican should be the villain. Even beyond the stereotypes, the Pharisee seems to be someone accustomed to doing good—he keeps the Commandments, fasts twice a week, and tithes for the support of the Temple. The Pharisee claims to do good and the publican claims only to sin—yet our Lord commends the publican and condemns the Pharisee. Why?
Well, God is the supreme Judge of all human actions—yet, here, the Pharisee is telling God what His verdict should be! You can almost hear the Pharisee telling God how lucky He is to have such an upright follower as himself. The Pharisee has no humility—he thinks that he is somehow “better” than the others around him.
By the time of Christ, the Machabees’ zeal for God’s Law had become a zeal for being seen practicing the Law, and thus being perceived by one’s neighbors as a “better” person. As our Lord said elsewhere, “the leaven of the Pharisees … is hypocrisy.”
Many of the Pharisees were filled with pride—and when I use the word pride, I am not referring to the urge to do things correctly. Pride in speaking properly; pride in one’s appearance; pride in one’s workmanship are all good forms of pride—but the pride of thinking oneself to be better than others can be positively sinful. The man who thinks he is superior feels that the inferior should serve him. He may tell himself: “since I am better than him, I have the right to lie to him; to hurt him; to take his property’ to take his wife; and maybe even to take his life—my superiority justifies sinful behavior.”
The publican, on the other hand, was content to acknowledge the legitimacy of God’s justice: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” His abjection before God seems both humble and contrite. And both humility and contrition are necessary for forgiveness—we have to recognize and admit our sins before we can feel sorrow and resolve to correct our behavior in the future.
The Psalmist tells that “God hears the prayers of the humble and despises not their petitions.” If we have trouble with humility be should recognize the fact that God has given us a perfect model of humility for our imitation in His holy Mother. Mary was God’s perfect creature. If anyone had the reason to feel “better than the next person,” it was the blessed Virgin. Yet, throughout the Gospels, she is the essence of humble behavior—we never hear her complaining or asking her Son for things for herself. Throughout the Gospels, she is the essence of perfect submission to God’s holy will—“be it done to me according to thy word.”
Call on Mary, and be like Mary, for “those who humble themselves shall be exalted”—exalted, not in the sense of being better than others, but exalted in being seen as just in God’s holy judgment.
 Gospel: Luke xviii:9-14 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=49&ch=18&l=10#x
 Matthew vi:1 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=47&ch=6&l=1#x Matthew xxiii:5 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drb&bk=47&ch=23&l=5#x
 Luke xii:1 http://drbo.org/x/d?b=drl&bk=49&ch=12&l=1#x
 Psalm ci:18 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=21&ch=101&l=18-#x
 Luke i: 38 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=49&ch=1&l=38#x