A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple. The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving that he is not a thief, rogue, adulterer, or tax collector, and that he fasts and tithes. The tax collector stands further back, looks down, and asked for mercy; he calls himself a sinner. Which of them will be exalted? The one who humbles himself, obviously, Jesus says.
Do you know how quickly I just categorized myself as being like the tax collector? What about you? Are you humble, or are you a bit self-righteous? And in God’s view are we determined humble or self-righteous in comparison to others or by some predetermined rubric of self-righteousness?
I could name for you a couple of people in particular who come to mind when I read this passage and start thinking about self-righteousness. This tendency to point to other people’s bad qualities is self-righteous in itself. It is, after all, what the Pharisee does in the temple; in his prayer he points to all of those bad people, instead of approaching God with honest concerns about how he can lead the life he’s called to lead.
Such comparisons are symptoms of self-righteousness. When we point to other people and call them names, accusing them of being this or that, aren’t we just revealing how much we think of ourselves? Some people seem to be quite good at this—I can be, sometimes—they see themselves as the righteous underdogs trying to knock the sinners off of their pedestals for the sake of justice or moral progress. But in knocking others down, don’t they also bring themselves and their causes down with them?
To be exalted is to be happy, whole, and held in high regard; how can one be exalted while tearing away at another?
This is pertinent to everyone, and the minute we start to think something to the extent of, “so-and-so should really read this and get knocked down a peg or two,” that is the moment we begin to act as the Pharisee. Don’t worry about everyone else—it’s a fool’s game.
In the words of my mentor, friend, and colleague The Rev. Dr. Tom Warne, “Stay humble, stay humble, stay humble, stay humble, stay humble, stay humble, stay humble.” It’s a simple mantra, I’ll grant you, but it’s so important because the moment we think ourselves better than others, we close off avenues for love and reconciliation.
The Rev. Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.
Into the Fire is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.