The Righteous vs. The Self-Righteous 10/24/10

Joel 2:23-32, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 and Luke 18:9-14

I.                    The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The challenge set before us today is finding a way to see ourselves as the Pharisee in this story.  We’ve heard this story often enough to know that we’re not supposed to be this kind of person.  We are supposed to be humble and quietly righteous, not making a show of our piety.  So, the tax collector has slid into the being the “good guy” of this parable.  He was by no means perceived as a good guy by Jesus or his disciples.

The tax collector was ritually unclean.  He did not follow the laws and customs of the faithful Jews.  He associated with the Romans, even working with them at extorting money from his fellow Jews for the Romans.  If Jesus told this parable today, instead of a tax collector he might have used the image of a loan shark, a dirty Wall Street investor, or perhaps even a Washington politician who has stopped listening to his constituents back home.  We don’t expect much from individuals like this and to be honest, we don’t trust their motivations or their words.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, was not the fall guy we have made him out to be today.  Pharisees kept the faith.  They did not have any power politically.  They worked hard to live pure, righteous, faithful lives.  The Pharisees were urged to see breaking bread at home as a spiritual act, even the preparation of food was holy.  So who would the modern day example of this Pharisee be?

That is a tricky question, for even in identifying groups of people who might be self-righteous, we risk becoming the Pharisee ourselves, saying “Thank God I’m not like them.”  The harder and more faithful way of answering the tricky question of who are the Pharisees today is to look at how we are like the Pharisee.  We must first take the plank from our own eye to see the speck in our neighbor’s.

II.                 Are we capable of being honest about this with God and ourselves?

Let’s be honest: many un-churched folk and people outside of the church would point to the church itself and say, “You’re ALL Pharisees, believing yourself to be better than us!”  Before we jump to defend ourselves, might I suggest there is a grain of truth that?  We, all of us, are trying to live faithful and good lives.   None of us want to be considered criminals, bad for society, or not respected in the community.

How do we fall into becoming like the Pharisee?  Do we split ourselves into cliques and groups of like-minded people?  Do we pat ourselves on the back for not being like the other groups in the church – those pushy, close-minded, fools who just don’t understand the mission of the church?  Are we quick to criticize (even in our minds, if not aloud) others for not being more involved?  For not responding well to change?  For not participating?  For not doing things “properly”?

Folks, this is what most churches look like – we’re a group of humans who make lots of mistakes.  That’s the truth – if we’re brave enough to face it.  In every church, in almost every believer (that I’ve met) there are moments and seasons of arrogance and self-righteousness that stymies our spiritual growth.  The quickest way to slide backward in your faith life is to believe that you’re in right relationship with God and nothing else needs to happen in order for you to remain faithful.  If and when you do that, you are putting your trust in you, and not in God: hence the term, “self-righteous.

Casting off spiritual arrogance

Why is this so dangerous?  Rick Morley notes: “Socially, arrogance is the mentality which follows from the belief that one is better than those around him.  However, religiously or spiritually arrogance goes a bit deeper.  Religious arrogance says that you know the mind of God better than anyone else.”[1]  It is a dangerous thing to think that we know God’s mind better than others, or that we know what God thinks and would decide in each situation.  None of us really want to sign on for the job of God– the trouble is we don’t always see when we take on this attitude.

Do you sometimes in your prayers find yourself telling God instead of asking God?  That may be an early sign of spiritual arrogance.

III.               The two tragic mistakes of the Pharisee

He “looked down on everybody else.”

Joan Chittester, a Benedictine sister in Erie, PA wrote a book a few years ago on the Book of Ecclesiastes.  In it, she says, “Each of us lives striving for an invisible finish line … We live wanting to get it right.  We go on searching for the secret to having it all … We deplete ourselves by the noxious exercise of constantly measuring ourselves against others.  It reminds us of our inadequacy, or it lulls us into a sense of slippery superiority.”[2]

Unconsciously or not, we compare ourselves with the people we see.  Sometimes we let this tendency (to compare and contrast) get the better of us and we let it make us feel better about who we are.  In his weekly blog, Rev. Dan Clendenin notes this of our inclination to be like the Pharisee:

“We imagine that in denigrating others we validate ourselves, or that at least we will compare favorably … We harm people when we do this to them.  Even worse, while imagining that we elevate ourselves, we harm our own selves … What we all need when we flounder and fail is not moral condescension but human compassion, not humiliation but empathy, not shame but hope.”[3]

It usually starts out quite innocently in our lives.  We are just talking about our day and what we’ve experienced.  Then we remember that one person who said or did something that surprised us – something that we didn’t understand or agree with, and as we try to unpack that event, we start talking about that person.  Before we know it, we’re not just talking about the person, we are gossiping.  Pretty soon, we’re not gossiping, we’re judging.  Suddenly, we are thanking God that we are not as foolish as that person, we’re not like them at all!

He justified himself, thanking God that he was “not like other people.”

What’s the big deal about justifying ourselves?  Is that like tooting your own horn?  Maybe sometimes you have to … otherwise no one else will, right?

Well, no, not quite.  The thing is, we don’t have to justify ourselves to God.  We have been justified by grace through faith!  Justified by grace.  It doesn’t matter how worthy you are of receiving the grace, or how wonderful your behaviors are or aren’t.  Yes, surely we hope you live in response to God’s love.  Yes, this is a way of showing God’s presence in your life.   But it was not you who achieved this faith and wonderfulness – that was a gift from God.

Ultimately, justifying yourself, exalting yourself is narcissistic and untrusting of the Good God who created and provided for you.  Arrogance says you don’t need others help, nor do you want it.  It belittles the need for trust, loyalty, dependence or reliance on God. 

Arrogant, ostentatious piety hurts you because it is based on the lie that you need to exalt yourself in order to be respected and loved by God or anyone else.  You don’t.  All you have to do is willingly bow your head like the tax collector, bare your soul to God and receive God’s grace and mercy.  The most heartfelt, sincere prayer might possibly be “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

IV.               The difference between the righteous and the self-righteous

So we are right where we knew we would end up – don’t be like the Pharisee.  Be like the tax collector.  Don’t worry about what others think of you, that doesn’t matter.  Some of those ‘tax collector’ characters (the loan shark, the investor, the politician), some of them are actually good guys who pray like the tax collector in our story and find their way to God’s grace.

The difficulty is that you can’t tell by looking at them.  You can’t tell that someone is a good person just because they are a good observant Christian of Jew (like the Pharisee) and you can’t tell if someone is bad just because they have done bad things in the past.  Our friend Joan Chittester reminds us, “Life is not what we see happening on the outside.  Life is what goes on inside in the quiet, murky waters of our souls.”[4]

It’s a matter of the heart.

The difference between the righteous and the self-righteous is a matter of the heart.  “If (like the tax collector) we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God’s goodness, we make room for God to work in our lives.  That is much closer to righteousness than all the good works we can manage.  Charles Cousar writes, ‘Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.’  Honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.”[5]

Guard your heart well.  Encourage your heart to be honest with God; be generous towards others.  Be gentle with yourself, knowing that you are a recipient of God’s love and grace.  And that is good news!


[1] Rick Morley, “Casting Off Spiritual Arrogance” from A Garden Path, at http://www.rmcmorley.com/a-garden-path/2010/10/proper-25c-casting-off-spiritual-arrogance-.html

[2] Joan Chittester, “The Seasons of Life” in There is a Season.  1995, pg 1.

[3] Dan Clendenin, “Lord, Have Mercy: What’s Wrong About Being Right” at The Journey with Jesus, Oct 19, 2010.

[4] Joan Chittester, “The Seasons of Life” in There is a Season.  1995, pg 1.

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