There is a spin off-on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that has been around for quite a while. The Catholic version has a priest and a deacon kneeling around the altar praying together. The priest says ” Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” The deacon prays “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” Then both hear a voice coming from the back of the church and they turn to see the janitor, head bowed low, beating his breast saying “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” The priest turns to the deacon and haughtily remarks, “Ha, look who thinks he’s a sinner!” (John Shea)
What this clever parody brings to light is our tendency to compare ourselves with others and to measure our worth only in terms of being less than or more than others, like the Pharisee does in this scripture.
But before we get all squinty-eyed and declare the Pharisee the bad guy, we need to recognize that the original hearers of this parable, found nothing even remotely surprising about it until Jesus got to the end and said it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified. That is the only part that would have drawn a gasp from the crowd. To 1st century ears, the Pharisee was simply praying. “Scholars suggest that the prayer that Jesus places onto the Pharisee’s lips was not a caricature or distortion but rather was a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving of that era. To the first hearers of this parable, the Pharisee’s prayer was ordinary, as familiar as “Now I lay me down to sleep” or “Our Father, who art in heaven” is to most of us.” (Hoezee)
What we find distasteful is not necessarily the Pharisee’s prayer, but rather the underlying spirit of the prayer, namely, his smallness in comparing his piety and accomplishments to the tax collector who he obviously considers well below himself.
But, it’s good to note here that we can’t stay where the tax collector is in this parable either; living our whole life with the mantra “I’m a sinner, I’m a sinner, I’m a great big sewer.” Jesus is not recommending that the stance of self-deprecating penitent become our permanent spiritual posture either.
Both men are extremes. There is something of the Pharisee in all of us, as we so easily make comparisons, exalting ourselves over others and there is also something of the tax collector in us, who humbly recognizes his own weaknesses while opening himself to the source of all mercy. What Jesus is inviting us to do is to leave aside all comparisons and just connect with our creator – reminding ourselves that God is the vine and we are the branches. From this connection alone does goodness flow and right relationship with God, others and ourselves is found.
Ultimately, our calling in life – what brings us fulfillment – is to be spiritually free and healthy enough to use our God-given gifts to bless others; to share and love recklessly, contributing with abandon to the common good of all. This is what we were designed for. In giving of ourselves we not only follow Jesus’ lead but we are welcome collaborators in bringing about the Kingdom; his dream for our world.
“We certainly can’t access this kind of openness and generosity if we are arrogant like the Pharisee. But, neither can we do it if we remain habitually mired in a sense of our unworthiness like the tax collector.” (Muehl) The key is to always remind ourselves that ALL we have, all our goodness, talents and things that we can be thankful for and take a healthy pride in, are fruit’s of God’s grace at work in us. We are a good creation designed by a compassionate God for a noble and loving purpose. It’s not arrogant or wrong to say that we are “God’s gift to the world” if we recognize that we are but the instrument – not the source.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:
“There is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction. We like to do good things….and, we like to be praised for it…. But there comes a time when the drum major instinct can become destructive. Nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. I must be first. I must be supreme. Our nation must rule the world…but let me rush on to my conclusion…Don’t give this up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity.”
Many of us would say that the Pharisee (and maybe even Martin Luther King here) had a big ego. ‘For most of us, the word ego has a negative connotation. To accuse someone of having a big ego is to accuse him of being overfull of himself, inflated, grandiose, and lacking in humility.
But this is really very untrue. To have a strong, sizable ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is a needed thing, especially if we are ever to achieve anything of worth. Few people would ever think of humble, stooped-over little Mother Theresa as having had a big ego, yet, clearly, she had a huge ego – a powerful self-image that allowed her to stand before the whole world convinced of her truth, convinced of her importance, convinced of her big dreams. It takes a powerful ego to do that. Her strong ego was key to her greatness (Rolheiser).
And yet she was humble. She was aware that everything that made her unique and powerful did not come from her, but from God. She was simply a channel of God’s power and grace. She was never full of herself, only full of God. She could access greatness and let it flow through her without apology, but she didn’t identify with that greatness or claim it as her own.
For so many of us, the bigger struggle in our lives is that we have lost our rootedness in our foundational relationship with God. We are branches that have somehow disconnected from the vine, leaving us isolated, bitter and dried up – our egos too weak to reach out to others or do anything great. In truth, the Pharisee’s prayer exposes a deep insecurity not confidence in his identity as a child of God.
We all have many internal (and maybe external) voices that habitually paralyze us with the words: “Who do you think you are! That’s just pride and arrogance! That’s just ego! You aren’t talented enough or good enough to do this!” These voices are not of God….
So, perhaps the more pronounced struggle in our culture today is to strengthen our egos, rooting them squarely in the vine of God’s boundless love for us, so as to allow us to be vulnerable…to be open to others….to forgive…and to resist becoming paranoid, guarded and isolated. (Rolheiser paraphrase)
So, yes, we need to avoid pride and arrogance – and certainly refrain from comparing ourselves to others. But we also need to recognize that false humility might be our greater challenge – especially as Christians. Our attempts at humility may just be in reality selling ourselves short and keeping us from ever achieving anything great. Humility is tricky business.
As a closing word of caution, author Paul Powell once observed:
“Pride is so subtle that if we aren’t careful we’ll be proud of our humility. When this happens our goodness becomes badness. Our virtues become vices. We can easily become like the Sunday School teacher who, having told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, said, ‘Children, let’s bow our heads and thank God we are not like the Pharisee’”
A closing little gem from Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”