While most Americans give thanks for their blessings this time of year, I’d like to look at a different side of the coin using Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, found in Luke 18:9-14.
Jesus often aimed his stories straight at the spiritual elitists of the world. In his day, that would be the Pharisees. They (not the Roman Empire, as is commonly believed) embodied the worst of God’s enemies because they, unlike Roman/Greek/Gentile societies, were supposed to know better. After all, didn’t they constantly proclaim themselves the experts?
The Pharisee mindset isn’t unique to them and is still alive and well among scientific, academic, religious, social, and political elitists of all parties and cultures, including many Christians, who regard any group but their own with contempt. So Jesus’ illustration is as relevant today as it was then:
To some who were confident of their own rightness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
I disagree with the idea that God rejected the Pharisee’s prayer because he was insincere. I believe he was totally sincere. In his mind, he’s perfectly right, and therefore more than acceptable to God, for which he’s genuinely grateful. The Pharisee’s problem is precisely that he meant every word, which demonstrates a heart of condescension and contempt, a clueless heart. He not only doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t know God.
At the root of this problem is the relentless human habit of comparing oneself to others, which nearly always leads to judgmentalism and one of two extremes: self-degradation or self-superiority. Judgmentalism is different from simply making observations, i.e., discernment. It’s one thing to be aware of differences (discernment), but it’s quite another to use that to make yourself superior or inferior (judgmentalism).
The tax collector doesn’t compare himself to anyone. He’s not looking around, not obsessed with what others say and do, not distracted by how others look. I also disagree with the idea that beating his chest equates to beating himself up in self-hatred. I think he was simply discerning, which demonstrated a clean, honest heart. Aware, not clueless. Despite sin, he knew himself and God well, and that’s why he went home justified.
Now wouldn’t it be the grandest irony to miss Jesus’ point and conclude, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee”—or liberals/conservatives, gays/homophobes, atheists/Christians, Americans/rest of the world!
Isn’t that just how hypocrisy sneaks up on us like rust on a hinge? Speaking from experience, it’s a booby-trap that backfires mentally and spiritually, turning even the most sincere person into a blind, ridiculous expert. It’s why Jesus said to be careful and “watch yourselves!” (Luk. 17:3)
So I’m grateful for the usual biggies: life, laughter, family, friends, employment, enough to eat, a roof overhead, and a sound enough mind and body to enjoy it all. But I’m especially thankful for spectacular failures on my part over the years that were proverbial blessings in disguise. These are what seasoned my faith like pepper and onion in Thanksgiving Day stuffing.
Happy Turkey Day, everyone! May you live, laugh, and love (even through tears), knowing yourself and God more richly each year.