Of course, I’m not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luke 18: 9 – 14), thank God.
Imagine being contemptuous, opinionated, judgemental, competitive, discriminating, excluding and (self-)righteous, and then turning up to church to worship God. It would seem God was far from impressed. No wonder! Who does he think he is, standing there emphasising his goodness and worthiness to God? Imagine! It seems like he is another one of these hypocrites that fill religious places the world over.
Yet, to be fair, is this not the world we inhabit… one where we are taught from earliest days to judge others by their failings and weaknesses; one that makes me a success because I am not like that – poor, weak, uneducated, incompetent…
Success is often viewed in terms of worthiness, material gain and the capacity to separate ourselves from those lesser than us and whom we don’t like; and, because they are less and we don’t like them, we believe God doesn’t value them or like them either. Nevertheless, even while trying to be fair, thank God, I’m not like that there Pharisee! He is really into some serious finger pointing!
If I am honest, however, it is probably true to say, I am like him and he is like me! I might believe I am, and want to be, more like the tax collector, but I know I can be more like the Pharisee.
So, the issue isn’t just one of a misplaced pharisaic confidence before God; it is about how that competitive focus manifested itself in his relationships with others who shared his world but not necessarily his outlook. His way of worshipping allowed the Pharisee an excuse to exclude those who were not ‘pure’ like him and I can’t help but wonder if he would have thought he was doing God a favour by pointing out the failings in everyone else, and especially the tax collector.
The Pharisee was living according to his own culturally set and false standard of purity which served to justify his separation from those who failed in living to his sense of religious rigour. Sadly, while so focused on seeing and naming the failings of those around him, he seems to have lost sight of his own sin, and therefore God as well. The condemnation he thought he was helping to bring on others was the condemnation he brought on himself instead! Thus, in the end, he came to be standing alone; worshipping himself, by himself.
If true worship engages head, heart and hands in a constructive and creative synergy of faithful living; then perhaps the Pharisee could be considered guilty of a false worship. He may have engaged his head and hands but he seems to have misplaced his heart.
In viewing the world around me, and in particular those different to me who stand afar off the church, I need consistently to hear with my heart rather than judge with my head and exclude with my hands. God does not stand afar from them. His view of success involves repentance and compassion. Here the shocking thing is for me that not only does he like them but he loves them as well, equally; even in their difference and lives of other religious rigour.
But, at least as good, his mercy and love can release me from my captivity to any false standard of purity and religion of exclusion. As God does not stand afar from his world, and all in it, neither does he stand afar from me. Indeed, God can never stand any further away, and never stand any closer, than the vacant cross which is eternally standing and welcoming home my soul.
For this, I can truly say, Thank God!
Amen, Lord, have mercy…