Today I am going to tell you a story. This is a Jesus story, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which Jesus told to some people who trusted their own righteousness and regarded others with contempt.
I’m a grandmother, and I’ve learned that stories are not only important but can be adjusted to meet the occasion. One of my grandson’s favorites is “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.”
I will first tell the parable as it appears in the Gospel of Luke and then take some liberties with it. I’m allowed to do this because I’m a grandmother.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I think you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humbles themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14, RSV)
Remember the audience here. Jesus was talking to people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (Luke 18:9). Perhaps this parable is speaking to us in these contentious times.
Now, can you hear the punch in the ending? The good guy in this ancient culture is the Pharisee, but in this story, the Pharisee is the anti-hero. The tax collector went home right with God, without even being told to change occupations.
Pretend for a moment that the parable had said that two men went into a church to pray–one a Mormon bishop, the other a Hell’s Angel. The bishop prays, “God, I think you that I am not like the Hell’s Angel over there. I fast, I pay my tithe, I do my temple work, and I’m bishop to boot.” The Hell’s Angel prays, “Have mercy on me a poor sinner.” The Hell’s Angel goes home right with God, but not the bishop!
That story stings. We wince hearing it. Remember, our imaginary bishop is doing the right things–fasting, tithing, serving, attending the temple, and obeying the commandments. The problem is in his attitude, his sense of self-righteousness.
Why does Jesus take self-righteousness with such deadly seriousness? Why does this one negative trait–self-righteousness–trump all the Pharisee’s positive ones? I thing there are a couple of reasons.
First, self-righteousness is the bane, the destroyer of human relations. Self-righteousness depends absolutely on a division of humanity into “us” and “them.” I can’t be up unless you are down. Contempt for others is always a partner of self-righteousness. The reason is clear. Pride is not accidentally, but essentially, competitive. This way of thinking about human relationships, in terms of us and them, was anathema to Jesus. Jesus was constantly and consistently inclusive. He went out of his way to make non-Jews heroes of his stories. He kept company with outcasts.
There is another ugly side of self-righteousness–the inability to be self-critical. If we are totally convinced of our own righteousness, self-examination is not necessary. Listen to this old aphorism, “A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice.” Why? we ask naturally. Because a surplus of virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.
Being on the side of right can delude us into believing that anything is justified because of our relative moral superiority. The history of religion-fueled hate and killing and oppression is horrific. Religion-based self-righteousness not only warps interpersonal relationships, impeding love of neighbor, it also deadens self-reflections.
I would also like to take another liberty with this parable. What if the Pharisee had prayed, “God, I thank thee that America is not as others are, those other faltering nations and those other countries of evil-doers”? Or let’s push this further. (Remember, I’m a grandmother.) Let’s add one small but portentous flourish: “God, I thanks thee that America is not as others are, and God, I thank thee that you, Lord, are on our side.”
What do you think of Menlove’s update to this parable?