The Worst Kind of Pride
In the Gospel Reading, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector, in order to teach a lesson about pride. As Jesus tells the parable, the Pharisee is not pleasing to God; the tax collector is.
In the parable, what the Pharisee says in his prayer is this: “I thank you, God, that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
The tax collector just prays for God to have mercy on him, a sinful man.
Now what exactly is wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer?
True humility is seeing that every excellence you have is a gift.
Notice that the parable doesn’t doubt the Pharisee’s truthfulness: he does have real moral excellence. And notice too that the Pharisee doesn’t congratulate himself on this moral excellence in himself. He thanks God for it; he gives God all the credit for it.
So what exactly is wrong with this Pharisee?
Think about it this way. Aquinas says that there are four kinds of pride.
(1) There’s foolish pride. You think you have an excellence which you don’t have, like a child who thinks he’s the best basketball player in the world.
(2) There’s the pride of the self-made man. You think you have an excellence you do have, but you think you got that excellence for yourself, without anybody’s help.
(3) There’s the sneakily self-congratulatory pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that God gave it to you; but you assume God gave it to you because he knew that you would make such good use of it.
(4) And then there’s the most self-deceptive kind of pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that you have it because God gave it, and you acknowledge that God gave it because he is so good, not because you are so nice—BUT you are glad others don’t have it and you hope they don’t get it.
Now we see what is wrong with the Pharisee, don’t we? He accepts that his excellence is a gift from the Lord. He just doesn’t want anybody else to have what he has. He likes looking down on that tax collector! And that is the worst kind of pride.
True humility is seeing that every excellence you have is a gift from your loving Lord and is given to you so that you can share it with others in love and rejoice with them when they have it too.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University