To Whom Do You Compare Yourself?

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness 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 would not 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." - Jesus

Have you ever wondered why Jesus praises the tax collector and disparages the pharisee? You haven't. I am confident you haven't. In fact, I bet that this parable has seemed so self-evident to you that when you read it you never even give it a second thought.  Well, right now I would like you to do just that. Give it a second thought. Go ahead. Why does Jesus praise the tax collector and disparage the pharisee?

No doubt you have an answer, and it has something to do with self-righteousness versus humility. Here is a pharisee, self-righteous and vain, exulting in his own splendor, thankful he is 'not like other men.' How dare he! We might imagine that here is a man who never lets a conversation go by without allowing his excellence to shine. On the other hand, here is a tax collector, touchingly humble and begging for mercy. How can our hearts not go out to this man?

Ahh, but here is the problem. For neither of these men actually fit the image that our minds have so fancifully conjured up. Were you to run into these two men, outside of this parable of course, your opinions of them would be radically different.

The pharisee is no inflated coxcomb, but a respected man. He is a man who takes his service to God seriously. He fasts and tithes exactingly, he studies the word fervently, prays regularly, and visits the temple often. He is a pillar of the community, wise and intelligent, a man from whom you might seek advice.

Meanwhile, the tax collector is no paragon of virtue, humility or otherwise. Here is a tough man who has taken service with the oppressors. Here is a collaborater, and while that word may not immediately conjure up images of horror for you, think about how you would feel towards someone who helped the Nazis. Here is a man who steals from his own people in order to line his own pockets.

Beyond these initial differences, there are many parallels between these two men. Both of these men are capable of pride and humility; both are sinners as surely as are you and I. Both of them desire to be in the presence of God; they are, after all, both visiting the temple. Both of them, in approaching God, do so in a prayer of thanks. It is not obvious in the prayer of the tax collector; but he is implicitly thankful that there is such a thing as the mercy of God upon which he can throw himself. As for the Pharisee, his prayer is more devout than you have likely thought it to be. For he does not stand before God and praise himself. No, he thanks God for the way that God has made him. He knows himself to be a transformed man and he is rightly thankful to God for being the agent of transformation in his life.

To get at the heart of Jesus lesson there is only one difference between these two men worth noting.

Before I share that detail, however, let me ask you this: have you, upon reading this story, ever felt grateful that you are not as prideful as you thought the pharisee to be? Think on that for a moment, and then read on.

Pretension Demotivator

The one difference that makes all the difference is this, the one question upon which this entire parable turns, is this: To whom do you compare yourself?

As the Pharisee comes before God in thanksgiving, he compares himself to other men. This is his downfall, and this is a ringing condemnation for those of us who have made of our Christianity a badge of privilege and a sign of virtue, for those of us who, without realizing it, allow pharisaic pride to sneak into any part of our Christian life, but especially those most devout and pious moments in the very presence of our Lord and Savior.

The truth is that when a man truly turns to God with a heavy conscience, or otherwise, he does so without thinking of other people at all. He is alone before God. Imagine the tax collector standing before God and praying about how the pharisee, good as he is, must also have sin in his life. This would be a true thing to say but it would also utterly destroy the genuine earnestness of the tax collector's prayer. No, what sets the tax collector forth as our example is that he compares himself upward; God is his only standard, and by that standard he is very far indeed.

The beautiful, glorious, mercy and grace of God is that it is at just such moments, when we compare ourselves to God and know how far we are fallen, it is precisely then when God is nearest.

(Inspired by "The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican," A sermon by Helmut Thielicke. Found in The Waiting Father chapter 11.)

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