In his book, What was I thinking? Things I’ve learned since I knew it all, Steve Brown has a chapter about something which he describes as “perhaps the most dangerous of all human sins.” It’s about self-righteousness.
I suppose a description like that could have applied to the sin of pride, a sin which almost exists in a category of its own and which is probably intermingled with a number of other manifestations of sin. In fact pride and self-righteousness are closely linked. It’s quite difficult to separate them. Self-righteousness is a form of pride.
Self-righteousness is the view that you and I are better than everyone else. We are the elite; in a league of our own. There is something that sets us apart from everyone else – the great unwashed, we might call them. Even God takes note of our peculiar marks of distinction: “Well done,” we imagine him saying, “for you are not like everyone else.”
Steve Brown makes a number of pertinent observations about self-righteousness; it’s worth taking a moment to think about them.
- Self-righteousness is subtle. It is so subtle that you are not even aware that you are afflicted by it. Steve Brown says that “it’s a disease that can hardly ever be diagnosed by the person who has it.
- Self-righteousness is incremental. The problem is that it does not tend to start out as something obviously bad; in fact, it tends to start out as something positive and good. “The sin of self-righteousness is always built on the good and the pure.”
- Self-righteousness is addictive. That means that we keep doing the things that feed it.
- Self-righteousness is indiscriminate. Once you begin to recognise it, you quickly discover that it is everywhere and that it is not just a sin of religious people.
Take a successful dieter, for example. Through sheer discipline this man has managed to shed many pounds over the past few months. He has even had to buy a new wardrobe, better suited to the new, slim version of himself. What does he think when he looks at the rest of us who have given up the fight against the flab? “Thank you God that I am not like other people, especially like all those overweight people who have absolutely no self-control.
- Self-righteousness is destructive. It is very difficult to love people if you think you are so much better than them.
Jesus’ story in Luke 18 about the two men who went to pray at the Temple is a story about self-righteousness. When Jesus told it, he had the self-righteous clearly in his sights.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.
This parable was aimed like a missile. To make sure that no one was left at the end wondering what it could possible have meant, Jesus summed it up like this:
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Before we get into the lessons of the story, let’s set the scene.
Once again the details of the story are fairly straightforward. And again, unlike the parable of the sower, there is no symbolism to interpret.
Twice a day there was a sacrifice at the Temple. It was offered for the sins of the people. Presumably it was on one of these two daily occasions that these two men went to the Temple to pray. In our context, we should think of two people who are going to a Sunday worship service at their local church.
The two men were very different. One of them was the kind of person you would expect to see at a church service. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were as religious as they come. Paul, who gave us so much of our New Testament, wrote later about his religious past, describing himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. They were known for their attachment to the law. Before we write them off too quickly (our familiarity with the stories can lead us to do that), we need to acknowledge that many of these men were more serious in their religious commitment than many of us.
Tax collectors were at the opposite end of the religious and moral spectrum. Tax gathering was a murky business and there were dishonest practitioners, like Zacchaeus, before he met Jesus, who found a way to get rich. Dishonest, disloyal (they worked for the Romans) and ceremonially unclean (they worked on the sabbath and worked with Gentiles), they were about as far removed from the religious achievements of the Pharisees as anyone could be.
Not only were the two men very different, so were their prayers. The religious man prays at greater length. His prayer is filled with confidence. He has been performing well; he knows it and wants God, and anyone else who may be listening, to know it too. He doesn’t even ask God for anything.
The “sinner”, on the other hand has very little to say. There is no attempt to commend himself, no attempt to put on a religious mask in an attempt to appear better than he knew himself to be.
It was the second man, according to Jesus, who headed home at the end of the service, having been accepted by God.
Not the religious man, filled as he was, with his self-righteousness.
Here is what the story teaches about self-righteousness:
- Self-righteous people are proud of themselves.
- Self-righteous people are judgmental towards others.
- Self-righteous people end up alienated from God.