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Guarding against Self-righteousness

The Reverend Neil Bramble Chapman


Luke 18:9-14

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."


Today’s Gospel reading reminds me of that famous Frost Report sketch involving John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett which reflects class snobbery. The tall John Cleese, representing upper class, says that he looks down on the Two Ronnies, who represent Middle and Lower Classes. Ronnie Barker says “I look up to him (Cleese) because he is upper class and look down on him (Corbett) because he is lower class. Ronnie Corbett just says, “I know my place.” It is a wonderful reflection on class snobbery and attitudes which are still prevalent in our society today, despite much talk from successive British Governments desiring to create a classless society in Gt. Britain. That idea is probably just a well-intentioned political dream.

The Parable is set up in such a wonderful way, Jesus audience is those whom he will end up condemning and they are described as people “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else”. We can imagine the Pharisee as a tall man who both physically and spiritually looks down upon the shorter tax-collector.

Of course it is all too easy for us to like the Pharisee in this story and to condemn anyone who is not like us. We might be tempted to say such things as “thank you God that I am not like other men and women, that I am not like the drug addict and the adulterer.” But this is pure self-righteousness and it is a dangerous delusion which we as Christians must never fall into, nor must we ever think that we are better than anyone else because of our faith, church attendance or discipleship.

However, sadly, this is the kind of attitude which is all too prevalent in society where individuals and communities define their identity by disparaging their enemies, by putting them down, by condemning them and in the process failing to see their own shortcomings. It is evident in communities torn apart by racial tension and violence, such as St. Anne’s in Nottingham, where young men seek to bolster their self-identity and image through carrying guns and committing violent crimes against members of other gangs. It is evident in the debate over fox-hunting, where one group say we are right and you are wrong, we are right and you are evil. The critique can also apply to the debates over women Bishops and homosexual Clergy in the Church of England.

The way forward is not to pretend that the other party has done no wrong, but to accept our common humanity and to recognise that we are all sinners, that we have all done wrong and fall short of God’s calling. The answer lies in recognising that our real value lies in being loved and accepted by God and that we must love and accept ourselves and others in this manner too. To accept difference and that the other is loved by God is not easy and demands that first of all we accept our failures and shortcomings and that we too are imperfect sinners.

This process is about recognising our dependence upon God. The fault of the Pharisee was not so much in his stance, in his prayer or piety, but it was his self-assurance and self-righteousness that Jesus condemns. The teaching of Jesus here is subversive, again he turns upside down people’s values and expectations. This is a recurring theme in Luke’s Gospel, where the values and assumptions of contemporary society are shattered and replaced with God’s values, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the exalted will be humbled and the meek lifted high. The Gospel of Luke begins with the Magnificat, which states that God has brought down the rulers and lifted up the humble and so it is no coincidence that throughout this Gospel, Luke continues this subversive theme.

This subversion of the prevailing attitudes of Jesus society, and it is a critique which can be applied to our society too, should also free us from the one-upmanship of today’s life, where we are tempted to think or indeed to act in the following manner: I am better than you, I have a bigger car than you, bigger house, better gadget, TV or mobile phone, I went on a better holiday than you and have a bigger salary than you. It is a way of thinking that so many people are tied into and they are the kind of values that so many have bought into. It all goes back to the Frost Report Sketch, saying that I am better than you, declaring our self-assurance, self-confidence and self-righteousness.

On the other hand, the virtue of the tax-collector was that he uttered the words that have become part of the “Jesus Prayer”. “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” He knows his place, on his knees, seeking God’s forgiveness and renewal. The tax-collector reflects an attitude of dependence upon God’s mercy which reaches out to all who acknowledge their need of God and then seeks to heal and to restore.

It is this kind of dependence which we see in Paul’s attitude in the Epistle. What we discover in Paul is a man who is reliant upon God. Vs 16 suggests that this utter reliance upon God is not altogether surprising since;
“At my first defence no-one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” and Vs 17 “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength...”
Paul has found that even though all his friends have let him down and abandoned him, as did Jesus disciples at his trial, God has stood by his side. This is an experience which is true for us too, that even though we may go through a terrible ordeal, of grief, of unemployment, serious illness, divorce, or whatever the misfortune that may be lies ahead or that we may be currently experiencing, God will be there with you. This is a theology of Incarnation, of real-presence, of God suffering alongside us. On this matter my theology is very simple and can be summed up in the following way, “whatever happens to us in life, God is with us.” God never abandons us, He is always present, even if we do not feel it at the time.

So finally, may we, like Ronnie Corbett in the Frost Report sketch, and the tax-collector, know our place, at God’s feet, seeking his mercy and forgiveness and renewal. May God guard us from self-righteousness. May God encourage us to be wholly reliant upon Him. May we meditate and reflect upon these two verses of Scripture, drawing comfort and hope from both; “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength”.

Amen