When the Pharisee prays out of his prideful comparison of himself against the tax collector, he uses a measuring stick God never gave us to use, and he fails to see the truth: that we all are sinners in need of mercy.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
13 ‘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.”
14 ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
I have a confession to make! I am a recovering compulsive comparer. I’ve struggled for a long time with comparing myself to others around me. In my version of this sinful affliction, I usually come up short. Whatever measuring stick my brain selects on a particular day, it seems that there’s always someone who’s more confident, more godly, wiser, prettier, kinder, stronger, or more gifted than I am. It’s not a fun (or godly) game to play. And honestly, the times I’ve “won” at my own comparison game are equally joyless… because God hasn’t designed us to be the centre of our own world (the ancient sin of pride), or for us to be one another’s measuring sticks.
The comparison game has no winners.
I was really struck by this in today’s passage. The Pharisee isn’t boastful merely because he’s a good person and does the right things… he’s proud because he is better than others. I’ll bet if everyone in Jerusalem were living good lives, fasting twice a week, and giving a tenth of everything, he wouldn’t feel so proud of himself. His self-congratulation is coming from the fact that he had measured himself against others, and won.
C.S. Lewis puts it like this:
“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about.”
Whereas, notice what the tax-collector doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Oh Lord, have mercy on me because I’m not as righteous or faithful as that Pharisee.” I suspect he’d have had every reason to play that game. He was a tax collector. But in this moment, he was the one who recognised the truth. He was a sinner before God. So, in that moment, the Pharisee’s status before God was utterly irrelevant to him. He knew that he himself needed mercy. And he received mercy. He was the one who went home justified.
Because God doesn’t use the measuring sticks that we use. He has made us to be “judging people”… we’re supposed to know good from bad; to promote good, to fight evil, and to bring sin into the light. But we are no good at judging ourselves in relation to others. God can see the heart (and its motives); we can’t. God knows the circumstances and journey he has given to each person; we don’t. It is the Holy Spirit who distributes gifts to each person in the united yet diverse body of Christ – all are precious and necessary. We aren’t to think ourselves better than others, or to ask why we aren’t more like *that person*. To do either is to dishonour the Holy Spirit, to doubt the wisdom of God, and to disparage the cross of our Lord Jesus – the only thing that justifies us.
There is such freedom in learning (however slowly) to repent of our comparisons. In practising new habits of thinking and feeling; of sober self-assessment and gratitude. For, at the foot of the cross, we are never more than forgiven sinners, and never less than sons and daughters of the King. Will you join me, alongside our ancient tax-collecting brother, on this road to recovery? For the destination is beautiful: it is the freedom of true humility, of self-forgetfulness, as we keep lifting our eyes to our Lord Jesus, who declares us forgiven and righteous and worthwhile.
Head: How do you think Jesus’ listeners (v9) might have reacted to this parable?
Heart: Where can you be tempted to be prideful, and/or compare yourself with others? How does your identity in Christ rob this temptation of its power?
Hands: Think through what you might say to someone who is struggling with comparisons, insecurity, or pride. How might you listen and seek to understand them? How might you point them to Jesus?
Heavenly Father, please have mercy on me, a sinner. Thank you that Jesus died to forgive and justify and redeem me, and that now I am yours, in him. Please help me to stop measuring myself by other people, and fix my eyes upon Jesus instead, so that I might truly love you and love others with the self-forgetful humility that can only come from my rock-solid identity in Christ. Amen.
A song to listen to: Mercy Mercy
Living Church – Springfield