Recent political discourse reminds me of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 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!’ 14 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 humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 18:9–14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
It has been interesting to read articles by partisans of one party or the other explaining how unelectable the candidate of the other party is, and how that party is truly in trouble and going down in flames. “They’re so bad that we’re good,” seems to be the subtext.
I’m not primarily interested in the politics, however, but in some things in shows about human nature. These articles and conversations point to a dangerous, perhaps even fatal way of measuring ourselves. We do it in church just like we do it in the broader society. If I can point out enough negatives about a church or a group, I will surely have demonstrated the value of my preferred group or position.
Thus comes the Pharisee. Now I think we should be careful about how we talk about the Pharisees. In many ways they would make excellent Christians. They were good people trying to fulfill God’s law. Nonetheless they suffered from one of the many failures of the righteous—self-righteousness. It’s interesting that when we look down on the Pharisees for their flaws, we generally are participating in the same ones. We’re not Pharisees. Aren’t we special?
Jesus is here bringing in a character who will be considered righteous by his audience and putting him up against one who will be considered wicked. Note the prayer. “I thank you that I am not like other people.” Face it! We thank God that we are not like other people on a regular basis. We may pretend to be the tax collector who went home justified. But more often we’re looking for the position of the Pharisee. However much contempt we may put into saying the word “Pharisee,” it’s his position we long for. It’s just that we want to thank God that we “are not like other people … or even like this Pharisee.”
I believe the root, however, is our bad approach to measurement. We want to be “better than.” We want a church that is less unfriendly, more mission minded, more biblical, better structured. If we can say with any justification, even just enough to convince ourselves, that we are better than the church down the street, then we can be happy. As a Methodist, I can give thanks to God that I’m not the frozen chosen as are the Presbyterians or self-righteous like the Baptists.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this, as someone points out to me the flaws of the United Methodist Church, which are doubtless legion. How can I be a member of a United Methodist congregation? Surely all of these flaws mean that I should instead be a [Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed (some variety), charismatic, pentecostal, house church, high church, etc.].
Here’s what experience has taught me: Don’t look at the church down the street. Ask this question: Am I doing God’s will by being where I am? Where can I best do God’s will?
Every church I have been in has had flaws. If it didn’t have them before I got there, it definitely did after! One of the most dangerous things we can do is determine our value before God by comparing ourselves to other churches. This works in many ways. The church down the street can provide us with an excuse for continuing to behave badly. My Methodist congregation may be comforting itself by noting that it’s better than the Baptists while the Baptists are comforting themselves that they are doing better than we are. We can follow that spiral right to perdition as our errors give others an excuse for theirs.
On the other hand, we can become extremely discouraged by comparing our performance to others. If the church down the road is growing by 10% per year, what’s our problem? If they have money to build a new Family Life Center why can’t we?
We need instead to take the parable to heart. What is God’s will for us? Let’s seek God’s will and God’s mercy as we work that out.
Here’s a video of a sermon I preached many years ago. I wonder if it’s still relevant.