I have been noticing cars lately. It’s to be expected when one is car shopping. Suddenly you start noticing the color, make, model, and year of every car advertisement and every vehicle that passes by you on the highway. But I also tended to notice cars before the whole car shopping thing started. Mostly it happens when I am in a hurry: running late or on my way to pick up the kids, or trying to get to a meeting, or waiting for some traffic light to turn. I tend to notice and fault drivers who drive those really loud cars—the ones that draw attention to themselves by the 2 large exhaust pipes that protrude out the rear of the vehicle and leave a smoky smell in their wake. Or I notice the ones who tailgate so that the car ahead is forced to change lanes or those who speed up, only to quickly brake in front of you.
Oh, I make all kinds of assumptions about used-car salespeople, aggressive drivers, and insurance people while not knowing a single thing about them! For all I know, the person behind the wheel or the desk is a hardworking Uber driver trying to earn a 2nd income to pay for her grandma’s health insurance. Or the person who works on insurance coding for a living and deals with difficult people all day via phone volunteers at an animal shelter in her spare moments. Or maybe the guy in the souped-up blue car is someone who saved all his paychecks from working fast food and got a really good deal on a really loud car because he is polite to boot. These are somewhat charitable, compassionate thoughts, but I confess my brain would rather conjure up really negative thoughts when I am annoyed. What about you?
Likewise, we might have a few choice thoughts about the person cutting in front of us or forgetting her turn signal or not looking both ways, or creeping along at 40 mph when everyone is clearly doing 70 mph plus. We can direct all kinds of judge-y thoughts towards the folks behind those steering wheels based on the little we see.
The Pharisee went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood in God’s house with his eyes fixed on others. Then he thanked God that he had followed God’s laws to the T. He fasted; he gave a tenth of his income to the ministry. That day, he proudly stood in the temple, instead of staying home and reading the paper. He served on temple committees and was sure to let people know of his sacrifice; he was scrupulous in his affairs. He was religiously observant, righteous in his own eyes. Thank God, he prayed, that I am not like that one standing there beating his chest with remorse. I wonder what he did? He would think to himself. Thank God, I am not like people who steal or take advantage, or sleep with another man’s partner, another woman’s spouse. Thank God, I am me, and not him…or her…or you.
The tax collector also went up to the temple to pray. He prayed with his eyes fixed on himself. God, be merciful… God help me…I am a sinner. I haven’t followed your laws. I’ve taken more than my share. I’ve cut people off and done some really risky things that have hurt the people I love. I have been unscrupulous. I am at fault. I could do better. I could be better all the way around.
Jesus tells this parable to those who regarded others with contempt. He tells this parable to the ones who prided themselves on their righteousness…on their savvy driving skills and ability to save for a rainy day…those who trusted in their ability to know exactly how they stood in God’s eyes…and in the eyes of their neighbors. In this parable, Jesus says that it was the tax collector, the sinner and extortionist, who went back to his home justified—which is to be in right relationship with God.
On the other hand, the Pharisee went home filled with his own self-satisfaction. And when the spiritual cup is full to overflowing with spiritual self-satisfaction, no one, not even God, can get in to make a difference. For this particular leader, his first thoughts were about himself and how wonderful he was in comparison. His first thoughts were his last thoughts, his final thoughts on his neighbor and himself. He brags to God, “I am better.”
Now recently, I was one of those annoying, creeping drivers with my kids in the back seat. I was the one driving an older vehicle with a flashing engine light, trying to cross 4 lanes of highway in too short a span of time and realizing that I probably should get that light checked out and soon. And then, again, recently, I was the one creeping along 355 while I test drove another vehicle and thinking this is probably not the best time to be doing this, in rush hour traffic, while trying to make a U-turn into the dealership with no traffic stoplight to give me right of way. But there I was. And so we do the best we can.
In retrospect, I am sure that a few disgruntled people behind me were wondering what this erratic driver was doing as she tearfully tried to change lanes without her turn signal on the way home from the hospital 2 weeks ago. It gives one perspective, doesn’t it? Sometimes we assume all kinds of things about ourselves and others. Like we wouldn’t ever cut someone off, that we always stay in our lane and follow the rules of the road, or some unspoken rule of life, and would never risk life and limb as a distracted driver.
Friends, being convinced of our own righteousness is as spiritually dangerous as driving while texting. Self-righteousness creeps up on you unawares. First, we quietly pull up alongside others and internally compare ourselves to them as to how we measure up. We give a head nod to equality while thinking we really aren’t equal at all. The Pharisee compares himself against thieves, rogues, adulterers, and the tax collector, all people who seem degraded in his eyes. Praying isn’t a competition, yet there he is, giving thanks that he’s not like one of them…and yet we are all like other people. And notice how, when we compare ourselves, we presume to know exactly where we stand, and in whose eyes we stand as betters. We presume that our perspective is God’s perspective.
Second, we – like the Pharisee—start to measure our spiritual status by what we do and don’t do. The Pharisee fasts; he tithes; he prays. His piety and religiosity is an achievement, not a gift, and he would remind God, just how fortunate God is to have such a member on his team, not unlike the one who stands at the MVA looking down his nose at those waiting in line and priding himself on his good fortune and thinking he’d never be like those other people with too many tickets to pay or a suspended driver’s license. Someone who thinks that his ability to pay for his car in cash was purely a result of his own endeavors. Really?
Often the self-righteous feel they don’t *really* need God. The Pharisee doesn’t really need God’s mercy because, all these years, he has been faithful and believes that his mistakes have not been nearly as bad as other people’s sins. He has become his own judge and jury. He has determined for himself that his achievements have brought him the spiritual success that he has not only earned, but deserves.
In our success-oriented culture, it would be easy—but spiritually disastrous—for us to see our journey and our walk with God as just another achievement or driver’s test to tick off on our life’s resume. Jesus reminds us that we who exalt ourselves will be humbled, in one way or another.
On this day, when we welcome Jacqueline into the fold of Christ, we do so with great humility, blessed that she has come to share this holy moment of her life with us. We welcome her with the knowledge that we ourselves have not achieved something—this is not our doing—but God’s gracious act. It is our hope and prayer that she will be gently reminded here that our very human first thoughts are not God’s last thoughts…and that we are all dependent on God in all that we do. We pray that this knowledge will overcome any unholy thinking that might rear its head in quiet moments: whether driving on 495 in the rush of noisy traffic, or while waiting in line at a bank, while sitting in a park on a still, autumn day, when praying in church, or comparing our nation or community to another while listening to the news.
We do this knowing that every one of us is traveling down this doing the best we can and that we might do well to give each other plenty of room to slow down, brake, and to make U-turns when needed.