Liberation From The ‘I Am Not Like Others’ Trap


from LUKE 18:9-14 by REV.

A parable is a picture story with a striking message. Jesus used this kind of story many times. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the two characters are easy to visualize. On the one
hand, you have an arrogant, holier-than-thou Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like the tax-collector. On the other hand, you have a contrite tax-collector who opens his soul to the mercy of God. The message is clear, the humble tax-collector is accepted by God and the over confident Pharisee is not. It is obvious, but ironic, that the normally outcast tax-collector is the so-called “good guy” and the religious pillar-of-the-temple Pharisee is the “bad guy.” So obvious is this, in fact, that it would be very difficult for anyone not to
see that we are to be like the tax-collector and not like the Pharisee. Once we understand this message, then any re-reading of the parable would serve as a reminder for us that we should exhibit the proper virtues of humility before God and dependence upon his grace.

So then we can be glad that we are not like the Pharisee. If you agree with me that this is the obvious message of the text, as I believe it is, then we’re in trouble! Because in order for us to be glad that we are not like the Pharisee, we must BECOME like the Pharisee who was glad that he was not like the tax-collector. This then is the striking message of the parable. No matter how we read it, we always end up being the Pharisee! How do we get out of this trap? As long as we ignore our common humanity, we will never escape. As long as we base our worth on how much better we are than others, even certain others, we will never escape. As long as we think God can be indebted to us, we will never escape. Only when we have a true understanding of ourselves, a true regard for others, and a true trust in God will we be set free, even as Jesus said that we shall know the truth and the truth shall set us free.

When I say we need a true understanding of ourselves, I do not mean that in the intellectual sense. I am not trying to make intelligence a requirement for faith. Rather, it doesn’t take a genius to know what it is like to be human. We build and we destroy.  We love, hate, laugh, cry, make mistakes, are happy, are sad and we need food and shelter and acceptance. These things and more are part of our common humanity. Yet the history of the human race is one which is marked by a desire to label some people as less than human so we may do with them what we please. We did it to the Indians and said they were less than human. We did it to black Africans and said they were less than human. We did it to Jews and said they were less than human. We do it to fetuses because we say they are not yet human.

It is difficult for many people to admit being sinful. I realize that many people today have low self-esteem and a low regard for their own worth, but it is a mistake to associate this with guilt. Maybe that is why some people object to having a prayer of confession in the worship every week. They feel it depresses an already weak self concept. But there is a misunderstanding here. The tragedy of our sinfulness is precisely so because of how valuable we are! If you spilled permanent ink on a third-hand rug you got at a rummage sale, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it? But if you spilled permanent ink on your brand new imported Persian rug, that would be a different story. Why? Because the Persian rug is so much more valuable. The same is true of us. The stain of sin is so significant because of how valuable and irreplaceable we are!

But let us say that a carpet maker came by and said that he had a way to completely remove the stain. Would you say to the carpet maker, “I have no stain on my rug and I am glad my rug is not like anybody else’s, especially my neighbor’s next door. I vacuum it twice a week and never let anybody walk on it with shoes.” Or would you say, “I spilled ink on the rug and I can’t get it out. Please help me!” It is confession then that opens us up to God’s help.

Now it may be absurd to say that we are on the same moral level as the tax-collector. Nevertheless, we are on the same side of the chasm which separates us from God. As John Calvin has written, “Whatever proficiency a man may have in the worship of God and in true holiness, yet if he considers how far he is still deficient, there is no other form of prayer which he can properly use than to begin with an acknowledgment of guilt; for though some are more, and others less, yet all are universally guilty (HARMONY OF THE GOSPELS, II, p. 206).” Through faith and dependence upon Jesus Christ we are cleansed of guilt. If you feel bad about yourself don’t blame God. Remember how valuable you must be to him that Christ would die for you.  Through his death he has wiped out the sin common to humanity. Every
person is a person for whom Christ died. God calls every person to turn away from sin and step into his kingdom as new people, like children fresh from the womb.

If we understand ourselves to be children of God, who, having rejected him, now are able to be reunited with him through Christ, this in turn will affect the way we regard others. Our worth is intrinsic and does not depend upon how better or worse others are. Nevertheless, this is how most of us determine our worth.

In my junior high school the students were put into one of three groups: the “A” class, the “B” class and the “C” class (which many people cruelly called the “dummy class”). I had a friend in the “C” class. It turns out he had a higher I.Q. than most of the people in the “A” class but because of an eye problem that wasn’t detected until he started high school, he had difficulty reading. His self-image was poor because he accepted the judgment that he belonged in the “dummy class.”

Sometimes when visiting someone in the hospital I will ask how he or she is doing and he or she will answer, “I just thank God I am not as bad off as some people, especially so-and-so down the hall!” Now
what happens if I go visit so-and-so. Do I say, “Hey, how ya doing?  I was just visiting somebody who was real happy that they weren’t as bad off as you!” Do you see what is happening? Even in the hospital, we can be Pharisees. In fact, it happens just about everywhere.

Too often we value people because they are the fastest or the smartest or the strongest. But that only works if others are slower, dumber and weaker. The true worth of others will only be brought out when our relationships are characterized not be comparison but common humanity. We must regard others as we would have them regard us.

The Pharisee saw God as a corporation which yields dividends for the right investment. The tax-collector saw God as holiness and was compelled to lay bare his soul. I am afraid our vision of God tends to be like the former. We persist in the idea that good deeds and hard work earn us a good life and blessing from God. But this is practically difficult since they are many people who are good natured and work hard that do not have material blessings. And this is theologically disgusting since it insults God’s grace on the one hand, and flies in the face of our Lord’s command to take up our cross daily and follow him. This led Martin Luther and John Calvin to say that good works are an abomination to the Lord. But the Apostle Paul had already indicated that when he wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith…not because of works (Eph.2:8-9).” It was the rediscovery of that truth which led to the Reformation. We can not earn God’s favor. It is freely given, but bought with the blood of Christ. Now, of course, good works are important. But we do them out of thankfulness for what God alone was able to do and has done for us.

I have discussed the meaning of this parable with others before. The reaction was largely one of rebuttal. “What do you mean, you always end up being like the Pharisee, no matter how you read the story? I simply refuse to be like the person who does not want to be like the Pharisee!”, they may say. Basically, there are two choices.  You can want to be like the Pharisee or you can want to not be like the Pharisee. But to not want to be like the Pharisee is to become like the Pharisee who did not want to be like the tax-collector. The
best way out of this mess is in. Admit that you are a Pharisee and have a good laugh. We are hopelessly, helplessly, without hesitancy, all Pharisees! See the cleverness of this parable, the trap of truth which it springs and the mockery it makes of self righteousness. We get into trouble when we take our own righteousness too seriously. Admit that you are like others and regard them in the same way Christ
regards them and you. For we are all valuable to him and by trusting in him we can be free to be true humanity. Amen.

Computers for Christ – Chicago