Luke 18: 9-14
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”


At first blush, this parable seems very straight forward.  The Pharisee ‘trusted in himself and regarded others with contempt.’  In more contemporary language, he took undue pride in his own behavior and thought he was better than other people.  The Pharisee is exhibit A of what not to be. Pride goeth before a fall! The way to be exalted is to be humble. Unfortunately, the moment we attempt to NOT be somebody because they are lesser people, we become the Pharisee— the very person we were trying not to be.  

The Pharisee was seeking righteousness. Though frequently caricatured in the New Testament.  Pharisees were religious people seeking God. The Pharisee’s error was not his obedience, tithing or praying but it was assumption that those activities made him better than others in the sight of God.  He believed his righteousness depended upon his doing right. He was like most church going Presbyterians. Most of us try to do the right thing. We may be sinners but when we add— but we’re not that bad, we elevate and justify ourselves. 
It is remarkably difficult to actually trust God’s love.  Even though we have been promised we are loved as God’s children, it is not enough.  We want to know where we stand, and we want some control over our standing. So, we compare and measure ourselves.   From there we are a tiny step to ‘trusting ourselves’ and believing our fidelity, obedience, giving, etc. will mean we belong to God and those who fail to do so do not.  While it sounds good, it is quite jarring to believe God’s love extends to all. 
We are all the Pharisee.  In the first century it would have been preposterous to any synagogue going Jew to believe the unclean were just as acceptable in the sight of God as the clean. For Jesus, women, children, the poor and disenfranchised were just as welcome in God’s kingdom as the most obedient holy man.   Likewise, for us, God’s kingdom includes people who, in our deepest heart, we believe do not quite deserve to belong. A modern parallel might be worshipping with an identified sex offender or a Nazi. Surely, we are not the same. God might love them but …they are different.   And as much as we might claim humility, true humility is realizing of the ways we compare and keep score. We fail to recognize our version of ‘trusting in ourselves’ does not have to be blatant self-promotion.  It can simply be our believing we aren’t as bad as those other sinners.    
In real life, a scoreboard mentality has disastrous consequences.  It leads to self-righteousness, comparisons, then to contempt and in the worst case to literal killing.  Name calling is the first step in the process that leads to genocide. It is one of the first ways we hold others in contempt.   Other humans have to be reduced in some way in order to make killing ok. It happened in the first century and it happens now. In the first century, the label ‘Christian’ was derogatory.  Christians, after all, were a cult with cannibalistic and seditious intentions. Those people needed to be rounded up and killed. And many were. The list of modern-day slurs could fill pages—hillbilly, cracker, hick, honky, trailer trash, Jap, gook, nigger, kike, shylock, wop —to name a very few.  Labels protect us from seeing how we are like one another.
Few of us use such slurs and most of us are uncomfortable around them but it is too easy to talk about other people’s prejudices.  Those of us who claim to be inclusive usually fall into the paradox of being prejudiced about prejudiced people. The uncomfortable truth is that the minute we claim credit for not using such slurs, we are likely disparaging the people who do.  (To be clear, such language is unacceptable but our response to it has to come from a different place than our self-righteousness).
Only when we can see the Pharisee in ourselves can we begin to understand humility. Humility is less about deference than the realization that we all turn away from God.  We are all sinners; we all ‘trust in ourselves rather than God. Right relationship with God has nothing to do with what we do. As one writer put it, our spiritual disciplines are like jumping up and down trying to get closer to God in heaven.  We are already accepted by God, our response is to be grateful. It is not to try to earn credit. Our righteousness comes from God’s gift of love. Our self-sufficiency will fail no matter how highly the world might think of us.  
It is often the marginalized in the world that are able to experience the reality of our dependence upon God. When you do not feel valued in the world, the gospel is good news.    I still remember a sermon from seminary in which the preacher said: “I was a liberal until I had something to conserve.” Most, if not all of us want to hold on to what we have built up.  There is no problem with that until we think we deserve what we have. We easily forget the inexplicable. Why are we not outcasts in India? Why do we have the talents we have? Why do we have the opportunity to develop them?  We forget all too easily that our esteemed status or our marginalized status in the world says nothing about our standing with God.  
The great wonder of our faith is the promise that our sins are not held against us. This faith claim radically changes what it means to be righteous.   Right relationship with God does not depend upon our doing right. It depends upon the promise of God’s love—period. This is what the Pharisee neglected to see and what the tax collector was grateful to see.
The need to trust ourselves and to justify ourselves need not necessarily lead to holding others in contempt.  In my own life, I find myself struggling with the need to identify a legacy for my life—and the increasingly clear knowledge that I will leave my life unfinished.  I have known this for years, but as I age, it is harder. It leaves me melancholy. Living in faith that who I am is part of God—a tiny drop in an infinite ocean, is not very satisfying. My deepest heart does not want my tiny drop to be dissolved into the sea—it does not feel like unity with God, it feels more like obliteration.  I want my name on that tiny drop.  
My theological and spiritual understanding is no consolation. I understand that what I am feeling belongs to my spiritual journey.  I understand that it is only when I give up clinging to my self-made righteousness (psychologically known as my ego) that I will be able to deeply know I can be safe with God.  But there is a large gap between my understanding the road map and actually walking down the road. In real life, I wish I relied upon God more. I yearn for the peace of God and though I know the futility of trusting myself, I discover over and over again my default setting—I want to hold on to what I will surely lose. 
I will close with a prayer Alex sent to me written by Thomas Merton:

Lord, I have no idea where I am going. I cannot see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following you does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.  Let be so.


Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.