Our Best Self
Luke 18: 9-14
Americans love to compare. We’re like the kings and queens of comparison shopping. When buying a new car, we decide what kind of automobile fits our needs and then we start looking at what’s out there in our price range, and then we try to get the best bang for our buck. Because of this comparison-shopping trend competing stores claim they will not be undersold and will match any competitor’s price. You can be in a store, see an item you want, and then go on line to see if you can get it cheaper elsewhere. You can then show it to the manager and see if they can match it, and if not, you can take your business to the other retailer. Costco has taken it to an even higher level. On many of their bulk items they even break it down to what you are actually spending per unit price. Like when you’re in the coffee aisle looking at the different brands of K-cup coffees. They actually tell you how much you are spending per K-cup if you buy at that price for those of us who may not care what the coffee tastes like, as long as it’s cheap. Not a bad idea if you are trying to wisely manage your money.
Making comparisons is generally not a bad thing until you start comparing yourself to others to make yourself feel better. To make yourself feel superior to someone else or to rationalize your bad behavior, i.e.; “Yeah, what I did was wrong, but at least it wasn’t as bad as what that person did,” creates a false sense of self and is harmful to not only you as a person, but in your relationship with God. You’re not being honest with yourself or God.
The inappropriateness of making these types of comparisons is what Jesus is trying to get across to us in our scripture reading for this morning. Parables, story-telling, was a favored means of teaching at that time which Jesus, a rabbi, used frequently. Sometimes the parable would have one or more meanings, depending upon who was listening. Sometimes, the meaning was hidden so that only the intended audience would get the message. Other times, Jesus would tell a parable knowing others were listening in, like the Pharisees who were always looking for ways to trap him. I think he would do this hoping they too would get the message, but I imagine they would usually scoff and remark that it wasn’t they Jesus was talking about.
In any event, Jesus begins to tell his disciples another parable. He starts out by telling them about two very different men who went to pray to the temple one day, a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now the Pharisees were a part of the Jewish religious hierarchy and considered themselves beyond reproach. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were despised by everyone. They were particularly disliked because not only did they collect taxes for the Roman government, but they had a reputation for being cheats, skimming a little extra for themselves off the top. So, at this point in the story, the disciples are probably siding with the Pharisee, as nobody likes a thief. Jesus then says, the Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” You can just imagine the tax collector’s reaction. “You know, I can hear you!” Or, “Thanks for throwing me under the chariot!” How arrogant! What a pompous horse’s rear! The Pharisee is not praying silently or quietly off in a corner. He’s praying out loud for all to hear. He’s praying about himself and letting all within earshot know he is there, what a great guy he is, how often he fasts, and how much he gives. Don’t you think God already knows that? He gives the required tenth, but I’d be willing to bet he doesn’t give anymore than that. Who knows how many poor people he passed walking into the temple, not even giving them a second thought.
But the tax collector, Jesus tells us, stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus then says, I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. It was the tax collector who found favor with God. It was he who humbled himself before God asking for mercy and acknowledging that he was a sinner. When I read that part about everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, I wondered what God had in mind for the Pharisee.
In our Sunday morning Learning Circle, we’re studying the 21 questions that our founder, John Wesley, would routinely ask his people. Last week’s question was: Do I thank God that I am not like others? The writer of this chapter points out that authentic followers of Jesus know that to neglect or mistreat others is to neglect and mistreat Jesus. By asking this question, Wesley challenges us to think beyond self and toward how we treat others to help us on our way to a life in the way of Jesus. In asking this question, Wesley intended to push us past superficiality in our relationships with others and toward a penetrating depth marked by generosity and compassion. Wesley wants us to understand how important it is to not only view our relationships with others on a personal level, but also on a missional level. We are part of God’s mission to restore the world toward its intended wholeness. This means that we Christians are challenged as agents or ambassadors of God’s love to participate with God to restore the world. So, if God’s mission is to restore the world to its intended wholeness and we are God’s chosen vehicles to represent God’s mission, then we must make our concern for others a top priority.
Jesus’ parable and Wesley’s question should cause us to stop, think and consider several questions of our own. Questions like: How does the way we treat people reflect upon ourselves? Are we being our best selves? How does the way we treat people as a church reflect upon our church? How do our actions reflect upon Jesus? Do our actions as a people and a church make people want to know more about Jesus? With the people we’ve helped over the past few years through our kindness and generosity, how do you think they view God or even if God really exists?
Self-righteous behavior and attitudes like that which was exhibited by the Pharisee in the temple is dangerous. It leads to pride, causes a person to despise others, and prevents a person from learning anything from God. All creation is God’s and God’s love reaches to include everyone of us. We are all worthy in God’s eyes. To think otherwise discredits God. We must choose to think the best of people and see others through a lens of hope and not a lens of disgust and contempt.
As children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we must evaluate our own spiritual maturity based on what God desires from us, not from what we may find as failings and faults in another person’s life. God doesn’t desire our being better than another. Rather, God desires that we become the best possible individuals we’ve been created to be. The way we treat people should move us closer to living a Christ-like life and not impede us. For God’s sake, we must be our best self.
Please pray with me.
Gracious and compassionate God, help us to be humble in our actions, words, and thoughts. Teach us to see others as you see them—through a lens of love, compassion, and mercy. We pray that we might always remember that we are all lost without you. In the name of your precious son, Jesus Christ, we pray, Amen.