Friday, October 26, 2007

How Not to Be Very Bad

Luke 18:9-14
As followers of Jesus it's okay to feel good about ourselves. In fact, that's an essential part of being true to Jesus' teaching. We're not called to beat ourselves up all the time, like the Christians and Muslims who - in various times and places - have gone around striking themselves with whips to punish themselves for their sinfulness. Jesus wants us to be repentant, but repentance is not about wallowing in guilt. It's about learning to love ourselves and about receiving the strength to change.

However, it's definitely not okay to feel good about ourselves if that leads us to look down on other people. Being a follower of Jesus isn't about being better than anyone else.

It's doubtful that Jesus saw anything wrong with being a Pharisee as such. His teaching has a lot in common with the teaching of the Pharisees. Like Jesus' own followers, the Pharisees were happy to draw on the best ideas about God and goodness, wherever they come from. Like Jesus' followers, they were a popular movement supported by many ordinary people. Like Jesus and his followers they didn't have much regard for the Temple and its elaborate system of sacrifices, believing that personal prayer and piety was much more important. Like Jesus and his followers, they also thought that merit has nothing to do with who you are, but is entirely dependent on the kind of person you become. When the Temple was destroyed one of the leaders of the Pharisees told his followers not to mourn, for there was another way of being close to God, and that was to practise loving kindness. The Pharisees also had a favourite saying, 'A learned outsider is better than an ignorant High Priest.' That isn't very different, is it, from what Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where an outsider from Samaria has compassion on the victim of highway robbery while the priest callously passes by on the other side of the road? The Pharisees were very conscious, too, that some of their number were insincere and they tried to weed out hypocrisy. Like Jesus and his followers, they believed that everyone was called to lead a holy life, not just the priests and leaders of the nation.

So where do Jesus and the Pharisees part company? There are two things which separate them. First, Jesus and his followers teach that the only way to be holy is by relying on the grace of God, whereas the Pharisees teach that we can be holy by carefully obeying the Jewish Law - not just the part written down in the first five books of the Bible but also an equally large collection of oral teaching passed down, they believed, through the generations.

This first difference between Jesus and the Pharisees leads naturally to the second one. If we happen to think, as the Pharisees do, that we can become holy or righteous by obeying the Law of God, then there's a danger that we will feel very pleased with ourselves if we keep the Law and - worse still - there's a danger that we'll begin to treat other people, lawbreakers, with contempt. If, however, we happen to think - as Jesus and his followers do - that we can't do anything to deserve God's favour, but must rely entirely on God's grace, that should make us more humble, not only about ourselves but also in our attitude to other people. Even if they seem much less holy than us, and much less obedient to God, even if they're not good and kind but are selfish and greedy or unkind, is there really so very much difference between them and us? There - but for the grace of God - go we! And, anyway, today or tomorrow we might fall from grace. Or we might deceive ourselves that we are much nicer people than we really are.

This is where the Pharisee goes wrong in Jesus' story. He assumes that he's a better person than the tax collector because he thinks he's a nicer person than he really is, when everyone who listens to the story can see immediately that the Pharisee is a thoroughly unpleasant man, puffed up with pride and full of contempt for other people who are different from him.

Of course, it's easy to laugh at the Pharisee in the story and then to fall into exactly the same trap. We begin to compare ourselves to thieves - the kind of people who steal the lead from church rooves, or laptops from cars, or mobile phones from children. We compare ourselves to drug addicts who become so desperate for a fix that they will steal from their own families and friends. And we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And then, if we're not careful, we compare ourselves to people we think are just a bit roguish - scroungers, idlers, people who seem either to have no values or else very different values from ours, perhaps people who swear a lot, or drink a lot, or gamble recklessly, or whatever. And we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And, if we're not very careful, we compare ourselves to adulterers, and to people who live with a series of different partners, or who get divorced for what we consider are not very good reasons, or who have casual affairs, or whatever, and we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And finally, if we're not very, very careful, we can find ourselves looking down on someone, and treating them with contempt, just because of the job they do. 'He's never had a steady job, of course,' we might say of someone. Or, 'She doesn't have any skills.' Or, 'He's a plumber, but he's a Polish plumber.' And before we know where we are, we've become just like the bad man in the parable, the person who went down to his home feeling justified when, in fact, he was not justified at all.

Jesus told the story not to attack Pharisees, but to remind us all to be humble. If a Pharisee can get it wrong, he seems to be saying, anyone can get it wrong. Because here are a group of people trying so hard to be holy and yet missing the mark completely just by forgetting to be humble. If we are to avoid the same trap we have to repeat into the mirror each day, as we comb or hair or shave, that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted.

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