Two people go up to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). One is a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, two very different individuals. The Pharisee is what I would call self-congratulatory. He is full of himself, impressed with his own righteousness, and, as if this were not enough, he looks down on everyone else, particularly the sinner. The tax collector, on the other hand, stands at a distance, will not even raise his eyes to heaven, and, while beating his chest, prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Our Lord points out that the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee.
Humility is a powerful component in the spiritual life. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that humility “consists in keeping oneself within one’s bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. IV). The truly humble know themselves very well, or at least as best they can at this moment. They know their shortcomings and limitations. And they submit to their “superior.” The tax collector is humble, the Pharisee is not. One submits to God, the other thinks it unnecessary.
We should allow Lent to teach us more about humility. The tax collector is an example of it in the parable. Our Lord is the consummate teacher of it in His life. “[H]e humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And because of this humility, He was greatly exalted (Philippian 2:9). There is our lesson.