When I look at myself I see...
well what exactly? Myself or myself in comparison with someone else?
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 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!” 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.’
How do you divide the world up? To one degree or another most people do this with themselves and their clan in one group and other people in a different group, a group to which they feel they don’t or can’t belong.
‘Us and Them’.
I recall walking down Oxford Street in London many years ago with a bunch of friends, most of whom were Goths. The men, perhaps fairly typically of us males, hadn't put such a great deal of thought in as we were, after all, just shopping. So it was just an array of leather jackets in various styles along with black shirts, jeans and boots. But the women in the group were another story entirely. They made great use of shape and texture, of different materials and dyes. Their clothes were elaborate and creative, as was their hair.
One woman in that group especially stands out in my memory. She was very elegant with long jet black hair and some of the most intricate eye makeup I’ve seen. Whilst her clothes were a mixture of black and white, there was nothing ‘simple’ about them. Her creativity flowed out into what she wore. But what I remember most that day was the looks that she got from passers by in Oxford Street. Many were quite admiring, some were sideways, but in particular there was a group of teenagers in typically casual jogging bottoms, hoodies and trainers who walked by making some very disparaging comments about her.
Us and them.
These were two distinct subcultures which self-identified by marking themselves out as distinct from, and better than, others. The Goths looked down at the Hoodies as being uncultured. The Hoodies looked down at the Goths as being weird.
So often and for so many of us we define ourselves by making a comparison with someone else. It helps us to work out where we are in the social pecking order. And then we get a parable like today’s which brings us up short, because it points us to two different types of people, a Pharisee and a tax-collector. For those of you who wonder what’s so bad about tax-collectors, it’s really to do with who they were working for. A tax collector was a Jew who worked for the occupying Romans. He was a collaborator, the lowest of the low in social terms, and he had quite possibly creamed a little extra off the top by over-charging.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, was an outwardly devout man. He gave a tenth of his income and he fasted twice a week. He was more than fulfilling the Jewish holy law. Yet there was a distinct difference between them and it comes out clearly in the monologue with which he prays. The key phrase is that overarching, ‘Thank you God that I am not like them.’ The Pharisee was comparing himself to everyone else, but of course he wasn’t able to see the bad parts in himself. All he could see was other people and how their bad parts compared to his good parts. He had been blinded by the comparisons he made between himself and those around him. He could only see the faults of others, faults that he didn’t see in himself, and so he therefore assumed that he was better than them. He had placed himself on a pedestal that he had constructed out of the misdeeds of others. Some might say this is a sign of insecurity, but I don’t think so. I think this was just force of habit and just human nature.
The tax-collector however couldn’t even look up to God. In fact he wouldn’t even approach the official place of prayer but stood far-off, maybe outside the Temple. The tax collector is like the person who comes to church but feels they can’t ever come forward to the altar rail because they are not good enough. But most importantly his judgment has not been clouded by other people’s actions. He makes no comparisons. All he sees is himself.
And so in this Jesus asks the question, when you look at yourself, who do you see? Are you comparing yourself to other people and are you doing so in your favour, trusting in yourself because by concentrating on the faults of others you have managed to elevate your own position?
But I want to go a step further, because it’s also possible that because of our own personal histories, what we’ve been through or what others have put us through, that we are actually unable to make a favourable comparison, and so we do quite the opposite of the Pharisee. When we make our comparison we look at all of our worst aspects and compare them with the goodness of other people, and so we convince ourself that we are the lowest of the low. Just worthless. So let me make one fundamental point...
The God who has revealed himself in Christ does not make comparisons.
And this, for me, is the key point to take away from this. When God is dealing with us as individuals, God does not compare us with each other. God does not look at me and say to himself, ‘It’s a shame that Paul isn’t as nice a vicar as David. I’ll have to discipline him a bit about that and make him feel wretched.’ And God doesn’t look at any of us and say, ‘Oh Elizabeth, why can’t you pray a little more like Sandra does?’, or ‘Margaret why can’t you read your Bible as often as Phil does?’ God does not make comparisons. But we do. And I think that the foundation for our comparisons comes from the lifestyles we lead and the influences of our culture which we allow to permeate the church. Both the negative and the positive comparisons that we make are a part of the fall out of living in an advertisement driven, consumer-led culture where people strive to earn more than each other; to have bigger houses, better cars, more expensive clothes, be or at least appear more important. Everything that we own has the potential to say something about us. I’m in the process of trying to replace my car, and I’m thoroughly aware that for some of us our choice of vehicle may be influenced by our desire to communicate something about ourselves to those around.
Let me, for instance, ask this question. What do you think when someone drives past with their windows down playing loud music on their car with it’s flashy paint job and after-market alloy wheels? Is it something like, 'Jerk!', behind which there might even be be this:
‘I thank you God that I am not like that person. They are clearly wanting to draw attention to themselves and make themselves feel important. Amen.’
Then perhaps we climb into our shiny big car with the private plate and drive off, without considering whether our choice was influenced by a desire to say something about ourselves.
It’s so subtle isn’t it, and there is such a fine line to be drawn between appropriate and creative self-expression which is a valued part of being human, and doing, saying or wearing something so that others will be able to see that we are better than them. Do we wear clothes or buy things because we like them or because we want to force others to make a comparison in our favour?
I know of a preacher who is also an art collector and he goes through mental somersaults every time he buys a new piece of artwork because he needs to convince himself that he is buying it out of appreciation for the piece of art and not because he wants it to be a statement that forces other people to think favourably of him as a highly cultured man when they see it hanging in his living room. I admire that, even if it seems hard, because he is asking such an important question in a consumer society - ‘Why do I want this?’ Look again at what the Pharisee says: ‘I am not like other people.’ Is that what we say to ourselves? Are the choices we make influenced by a desire to mark ourselves out as different from everyone else?
But God does not compare us. God looks at us and says simply this, ‘I made you. I know you’re not like other people. You don’t have to prove it. Stop looking at other people because you will only mislead yourself. Look at me and I will tell you about who I see when I look at you.’
It comes back to what I keep talking and writing about, that what each of us needs more than anything is to be developing the kind of stillness in our relationship with God that we can begin to discern what God is saying to us.
If you are surrounded by wave after wave of self-condemnation and a general sense of shame, be very cautious of thinking that comes from God. I don’t think that Jesus is suggesting here that this is how Christians should feel. I know that some preachers and some of our prayer books sometimes seem to encourage this feeling of, ‘We are all miserable worms’, but to me that is not how the Holy Spirit actually works. In my experience She does not condemn us, but instead convicts us. For example when I feel distressed about everything that I am, I know that’s just a general malaise. But when the Holy Spirit is speaking to me about something that needs to change She will point at a specific action or attitude and said to me, ‘That’s not right. That’s what we have to work on together.’
So long as we keep comparing ourselves to other people we will miss the truth about ourselves. If everyone else seems better than you, then you need to see the love on the face of God when God gazes on you. Look at the face of a parent when they lovingly hold their child in their arms. Look at that dedication and recognise that the love that comes from God, however we conceive of God, is like that only more so.
And if you look at other people and say in your heart, ‘I am not like them, I’m better than that’, ask yourself why. Why do you feel the need to say that? Comparisons with other people, either positive or negative, will get us nowhere. They will either make us feel awful or full of ourselves. They will never lead us into truth.
To find the truth out about ourselves, and what needs changing, we need only ask the Author of Truth, and then wait...