Synopsis: Pride can infiltrate even the most spiritual people by tempting them to establish their own worth by what they do rather than by who they are in Christ.
Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
Click here to hear an audio of this sermon.
Craig Brian Larson, pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, shares this story.
“Pali, this bull has killed me.” So said Jose Cubero, one of Spain’s most brilliant matadors, before he lost consciousness and died.
Only 21 years old, he had been enjoying a spectacular career. However, in this l958 bullfight, Jose made a tragic mistake. He thrust his sword a final time into a bleeding, delirious bull, which then collapsed. Considering the struggle finished, Jose turned to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The bull, however, was not dead. It rose and lunged at the unsuspecting matador, its horn piercing his back and puncturing his heart.
Just when we think we’ve finished off pride, just when we turn to accept the congratulations of the crowd, pride stabs us in the back. We should never consider pride dead before we are.”
That’s what today’s scripture reading is about. Jesus always told parables to make a point, so the context is important. Luke tells us that Jesus told this particular parable in response to those who were “confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”
In this story, there are two people: the first is a Pharisee. Today, the word Pharisee has become synonymous with “religious hypocrite.” But back in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were highly respected. They were deeply religious laymen who committed themselves to moral behavior and religious tradition. They can be compared to church deacons or other highly-respected lay members of the Christian church.
So, a Pharisee comes to the temple to pray, and he thanks God that he is not like “other people,” his list including the tax collector standing at a distance. He also mentions how he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets. The Torah requires fasting only once a year and tithing only on income, not property. My friend Yvonne would call this guy an “overachiever.”
The Pharisee feels pretty good about himself, doesn’t he? Is it OK to feel good about ourselves? If we grew-up in certain Christian churches, we might not feel like it is. We might have spent a whole lot of time contemplating our sin, confessing our sin, and begging God for forgiveness.
I don’t believe Jesus’ problem was with the Pharisee’s self-esteem. I think his problem was with what it was based on. It was based on what he does, not who he is.
This particular Pharisee sees himself as self-reliant, perfectly capable of establishing his own righteousness though his deeds. He probably figures that he’s earning even more favor with God than even the other Pharisees since he’s going above and beyond the call of Torah.
What is his true motivation for performing these deeds? Does he do them out of his devotion to his loving Creator, who gives him life, sustains his life, and without whom he can do nothing? Or does he do them out of devotion to his religious self-image: his own personal “golden calf.”
The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like “other people.” Yet, is he really different when the Life animating his physical body is exactly the same in everyone and everything that lives? Life that comes from God, is eternally connected to and sustained by God, and is part of all of Life in Christ. The separation the Pharisee is thanking God for is impossible.
But with that one statement, he reveals that in his pride, he has drawn a little circle around himself designed to keep out all those whom he perceives to not be as righteous as he is. He has no idea that in doing so, he has separated himself.
Contrast the Pharisee with the second character in Jesus’ parable: the tax collector. Jesus tells us that he stands at a distance, beats his breast, and says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” How does the tax collector’s attitude compare to the Pharisee’s?
The tax collector is repentant. Instead of thanking God for how good he is, he approaches God calling himself a “sinner” and asking for forgiveness.
His use of the “s” word might make some of us cringe, but the Hebrew word for sin (khaw-taw’) means “to miss.” Some of us might have heard this word interpreted to mean “to miss the mark,” like to miss some kind of target.
But really, it’s more like when we say, “Oh, I missed that” because weren’t paying attention. We weren’t present. We weren’t aware. The word is less about acts and more about attitude. It’s less about what we are DOING and more about who we are BEING. Are we being who God created us to be, or are we living unconsciously, in forgetfulness?
The tax collector is humble. He stands at a distance, which demonstrates how unworthy he feels in God’s presence. He holds no illusions about how he has been living his life, and he doesn’t compare himself to anyone but God, in whose image he is created.
From the perspective of its Hebrew meaning then, when the tax collector calls himself a sinner, he is confessing that has forgotten himself – that has been living his life unconsciously. And he knows that coming into His Father’s presence, being present, can restore to him the memory of Christ within him, in unity with the Father, whose righteousness was, is, and ever shall be firmly established by God.
What does this passage have to say to us in our modern times? I think it’s asking us an important question. The question is this: How do we want to establish our worth?
Let’s say that, like the Pharisee, we want to establish it ourselves through our religious deeds. The world places a lot of value on achievement: physical, educational, economic, religious, even spiritual. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about our triumphs. But when we choose to establish our worth by ourselves through our achievements, “doing” becomes the yardstick, and we step into a life of constant “measuring up.”
This leads to incessant striving. There are 614 Torah laws, and following them all is quite an undertaking. That’s why the Pharisees were so highly respected. Most Jews didn’t have the education, resources, or (frankly) the motivation to follow Torah so meticulously. But it wasn’t enough for this Pharisee to simply follow Torah laws; he had to exceed them, but not out of devotion to God. He just had to be better than everyone else.
It also leads to constant judgment and rivalry. You can see how the Pharisee takes his yardstick and places it next to the tax collector. This kind of rivalry makes mutual respect and cooperation impossible.
Prideful people can’t give anyone but themselves credit. They can’t admit when they’re wrong, so they never apologize. They won’t allow people in their lives who are “beneath them” or those who are “above them” because it would threaten their self-image. What effect do you think this has on their relationships with others?
The belief that our personal life experiences, education, religious beliefs, etc. are more valid than anyone else’s – that we are right and everyone else is wrong – that we are a saint and everyone else is a sinner – that we are God’s chosen, and everyone else is rejected by God – is nothing more than a delusion.
This delusion makes peace impossible, both inner peace and peace out there. It is an insatiable monster. The more we feed it the more it hounds us, never giving us a moment’s peace. We’re no longer free but chained to an idol that demands constant polishing.
So, should we be more like those Christians who slog through their lives, viewing themselves as hopeless sinners, constantly beating their breasts in self-contempt, professing themselves totally worthless? Those sackcloth-and-ashes Christians must be really good Christians!
Actually, they are no better than the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. They are also attempting to establish their own righteousness, but on the flip side. Rather than congratulating themselves in an attempt to prove themselves “more righteous than thou,” they are castigating themselves in an attempt to prove themselves “more humble than thou.”
It’s just the other side of the same coin called “pride.”
Do these Christians see themselves united with God as One with Christ, whose righteousness is eternally established by God – or – in an attempt to earn righteousness, do they stubbornly cling to a separated view of themselves, the way the Pharisee sees himself in Jesus’ story?
Wouldn’t it be a terrible blow to their pride to learn the Truth: that all their congratulations and castigations – all that hard work they have done their entire lives to establish their own worth – is totally futile because their worth has already been established – but not by them?
An apt proverb found in Guideposts magazine states, “God wisely designed the human body so that we can neither pat our own backs nor kick ourselves too easily.”
Now, let’s say, like the tax collector, we want to let God establish our worth through our unity with Christ. His attitude reflects a life of reliance upon that as the sole measure of his worth. It’s not about what he is DOING, but about who he is BEING.
The tax collector embraces self-examination and repentance. He is not afraid to take an honest look at himself, so he has no charades to preserve, no illusions about himself to protect. He can live fearlessly, because, knowing that his actions are not a measure of his worth, he is free to learn and grow from both his triumphs and mistakes. He is free to take both in stride.
The tax collector embraces a life of humility, comparing himself only to God. He recognizes that he is created in the image of God, so he has no need to compare himself to others. He has no need to be “unlike” or even “like” anyone else. Not only does this secure peace within himself, but it also makes peace with others far more likely.
Truly humble people easily and frequently give others credit where credit is due. They freely admit when they’re wrong and have no difficulty apologizing. They make friends easily with all kinds of people because they have nothing to hide – no self-image to defend. What effect do you think this has on their relationships with others?
Being real requires embracing being vulnerable. REAL people have better relationships with God, with themselves, and with others because they have nothing to hide. And they have peace because they accept the fact that their righteousness is already established – by God.
So how can we make the tax collector’s choice, the choice to let God establish our worth instead of constantly trying to measure up and establish it ourselves?
We can stop doing. God says to us, “You are my creation, and I love you forever,” and we respond, “No thanks God, I’d rather earn it.” You see how arrogant that is? That’s a decision made by the stubborn, delusional little self.
The idea that nothing we do makes any difference when it comes to our relationship to God or our worth in his sight is difficult for many people to accept. Some think, “Well, if people can do anything they want without any consequences, then what’s to stop people from feeling free to commit all kinds of evil?”
If you have children, it’s easier to understand. Children related to you by blood will forever be your son or daughter, linked to you by heredity. Nothing can change that. And no matter what he or she does, you will always love him or her. Yet your children’s hereditary relationship with you and your unconditional love doesn’t prevent your children from making their own decisions, and it doesn’t protect them from the consequences of the decisions they make.
It’s the same with God. No matter what we do, we are eternally linked to God as His offspring, and God will always love us. However, our experience of our relationship to God and of God’s love for us can be blocked if we choose. It’s blocked mainly by fear, which is the root feeling behind other human emotions like pride.
So, would people allowing themselves to accept and therefore experience our eternal connection with God and the love of God most likely inspire them to commit acts of evil, or acts of love? You see, those who insist on DOING to establish our righteousness do not understand that when we are BEING who we truly are, we don’t have to worry at all about what we’re DOING because everything we do will be inspired by the love of Christ.
We can also stop comparing ourselves to others. If we’ve stopped doing, there’s no need, right? When we stop comparing ourselves to others, we begin to feel OK about being different from others, and we begin to feel OK about others being different from us. We can have different opinions, different beliefs, different needs – it’s all OK – because these differences do not threaten our worth at all.
When we stop comparing ourselves to others, we are able to gracefully acknowledge our own imperfections. We love being around people like this, don’t we? In their presence, we feel we have permission to be authentically who we are – warts and all. In their presence, we feel safe – accepted for who we are – because there is no competition.
When there is no more striving to earn God’s love, when there is no more desire to compare ourselves to others, when there is no more need to hide the shadowy parts of ourselves, what is left?
BEING. That’s all. We are free to be – and to let others be. So, in every moment of our lives, we can ask ourselves, “Am I BEING the love, peace, and joy that I AM, or have I forgotten myself?”
Let’s pray together:
Lord, it’s so easy to get swept away by the chaos in our daily lives. It’s so easy to lose the present moment: to become anxious, to slip into “doing,” to slip into measuring our worth by comparing ourselves to others. Help us to accept the firmly established righteousness gifted to us by our Creator, to know that we are OK, and that others are OK, that we may have peace within ourselves and peace with our brothers and sisters. AMEN.