The first of the Beatitudes proclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” One of the great Gospel illustrations of the failure to embody poverty of spirit is the Pharisee in the parable told by Jesus in today’s Gospel.
In the parable, Jesus presents two people who come to the temple and pray. One is a tax collector, who stands off at a distance, eyes downcast, humbly praying to God and asking mercy for his sinfulness. The second is a Pharisee, who takes his position (doubtless an exalted one) in the temple and speaks to God, giving thanks that he is “not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” Rather, as he prides himself, he fasts twice a week and pays his tithe on his income. In truth, one cannot even call what the Pharisee does “praying.” Instead, he pridefully gives a report to God of all his good deeds.
Poverty of spirit has little do to with material poverty and everything to do with our recognition of our absolute dependance on God, of our appreciation that all we are and all we have is gift from our loving God. And the only response to that recognition is humility, a humility the Pharisee is sorely lacking, but which we see in the tax collector, prompting Jesus to tell his disciples that the tax collector “went home justified, not the [Pharisee]; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”