He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 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!” 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.’
The self-righteous, judgmental religious are familiar people in literature and wider culture. It’s easier to think of such examples than of more positive role models! And it’s true that I’ve met some of those people – but I’ve probably met more people both in church and in my wider life who live with feelings of unworthiness and guilt than otherwise. On the other hand, I suspect we can all think of people in church circles who pretend to humility as a slightly nauseating tactic for getting their own way, so we might not be inclined to accept apparently humble behaviour unquestioningly.
So what might we take from this parable? I’d suggest the key is being honest to God and to ourselves. It’s not about putting on some cosmetic behaviours any more than it is about continuing to delude ourselves about our own perfection.
But part of that honesty needs to be recognising the positives we bring as well as the behaviours we regret. It is not boastful for a healthcare professional to be proud of the care they give, or for a teacher to know that they’ve helped their students develop. Or more domestically, to recognise the positive impacts our family and neighbours feel from us. Rather, we should give thanks for the gifts and talents we might have, and reflect on whether we are using them in ways that further the kingdom of God, as well as praying that God may help us amend our lives.
Listening God, You know us thoroughly even when we turn a blind eye to our own weaknesses. Help us to grow in honesty: with you, ourselves and each other. May we know our own gifts and talents and use them wisely; May we know our weaknesses and be prepared to lean on others. Through all this may we be faithful disciples and show your love to the world in the way we live. Amen.