One of the many themes of the Bible, expressed on almost every page, but rarely presented from the pulpit or explored in Christian self-help books, or even fiction, is the ever-creeping and contagious, and sweet and appealing sin of self-righteousness.
We see it in the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax-collector at prayer.
The Pharisee represents, not some stuffy, ancient, religious buffoon in a long robe, but the slick and polished, articulate, better-than-everyone-else religious person with the (apparently) perfect job, relationship, body and hair, you might see on a ‘Christian’ TV show, or at church.
Or even in the mirror.
The ‘tax-collector’ of Jesus’ story represents everyone we would rather not be; divorced, unemployed, homeless or with a history of abuse or addiction – in short, one who has survived, and perhaps still bears the scars of life among the fallen.
In Jesus’ story, the Pharisee thanks God, most of all, as many of us might, that we do not find ourselves in the messy, disruptive and compromised life of the ‘tax-collector’.
The ‘tax-collector’ knows his life is a mess, and by any standard, a failure.
But he also knows that what he needs is not a perfect family, or a fitness plan or even financial rescue; he needs God.
And he needs to be forgiven, by God and by those he has injured or offended. He needs to be restored and healed, not judged or dismissed by those around him – by those of us around him who are the present-day Pharisees who judge ‘those people’ and imagine that God is pleased by the distance we put between them and ourselves.
In our heart-of-hearts, we know that we, if anything, give thanks to God that we are not like them.
We can say that we have no sin, and tell ourselves, that we, by our own standards, are ‘better’ than ‘those people’, but when we do that, our sin is far deeper, and darker than the ‘sin’ of being born poor, or with a disability or as a child of divorce or abuse.
In fact, scripture reminds us that when we say we have no sin, that we have, or own, or somehow ‘deserve’ the perfect life, we not only lie to ourselves, and others and to God, but far worse than that, we call God, our creator, our healer and justifier, a liar.
We all, instead of embracing the pride of the Pharisee – or the modern photo-shopped, always beautiful and cheerful (and fit) Christian celebrity, need to come alongside or even acknowledge our own inner tax-collector and claim as our only, deepest, and most heart-filled prayer ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:10-12).
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.
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