Paul warned us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but I think we can’t help it.
I know, strictly by chance, any number of CEOs, Corporate Board members and the like, and everyone of them will tell you that they got where they got by a combination of hard work and good choices. Yes, for the most part they will admit luck entered into it, but that is generally downplayed. They had the ambition, learned to network with the right people which increased the odds of them being in the right place at the right time, etc. The successful tend to give themselves the lion’s share of credit, and as I said, I don’t believe it can be helped. It is, what you might call, “human nature.”
But I also know people who could and have made all right choices (no bad ones), who have learned to sell themselves, networked with all the right people and they would no more be in the right place at the right time than a mouse fallen into a snake pit. You know the expressions: My ship came in but I was at the airport. The light at the end of my tunnel turned out to be the oncoming train.
Here is the truth of it. There are wrong choices, like dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs, but who is to say this college is the right choice over that college? God. We have no idea in advance which may be the best choices. Only the Grace of God decides.
As for the penchant for ambition, hard work and skill (beyond our education) as well as the ability to network, the chance to meet the right people to network with and so on; these are matters of nature and nurture. Nature is, well, God again. Nurture is by such a complicated combination of life circumstances, the only one likely to understand it is…God, again.
Certainly we have no way of knowing in advance what is the right place or time. That is shear chance, or as we call it, Grace. As for the luck part: Grace again. The CEO had no way of knowing he would get his severance package right when the bottom dropped out of the economy, nor that he would start his new job at the beginning of the recovery. He looked good on both ends, but through no virtue on his part.
I could go on, but you see the Grace of God covers it all. Yes, we can drop out, do drugs, lazily refuse to work, gamble, steal, cheat, murder all on our own without God’s help, thank you very much. But for those who do make the effort, whatever success, great or small, and yes, sometimes even failure is all by the Grace of God.
So here, this Pharisee praised himself, as most of us might be inclined to do, and more, he compared himself to others in a most disparaging way. I am glad I am not a robber, evildoer, adulterer like others! We will get to him in a minute…
Meanwhile, the tax collector did what annoys CEOs and board members because it is so often presented like we should have the same attitude about ourselves: lower our heads and think of ourselves as bad, awful people. But that is not it at all. The tax collector knew he had gotten off track. He knew the road he was traveling was not God’s best. He knew he was taking advantage of others, particularly the poor, and was focused scrooge-like on money instead of God. That was what tax collectors did, and why so many people hated them so much and thought them unclean. But unless you are off track like this, no one is suggesting you beat your breast and fall down weeping.
Instead, the message here is about humility, and it begins by acknowledging that whatever you have is by the Grace of God ALONE. What is more, God’s concern is always to straighten us out from the inside-out. God is far less concerned with outward things than you or I. The Pharisee focused on outward reality when he pointed his finger at robbers, evildoers and adulterers. He would have done better if he had prayed this way:
“Thank you God for giving me so many good things. Thank you for all the blessings in my life. Thank you for your abundance so I have no need to steal, and for the strength to stay away from that temptation. Help me in turn to share from all the goodness you have showered on me with all who have want.
“Thank you for setting my feet on the path of righteousness. Help me always to walk in your will and never stray into wickedness. And help me to reach out to those who have done evil with a word of grace, love and forgiveness as you have so often forgiven me.
“And thank you for the parents, friends, and all that you have brought into my life to help me and give me the strength to remain faithful to my wife, my children, and all of this wonderful family you have graciously given.
“Lord, you know me awake and asleep. You know I have not loved you with all my heart, mind, soul and strength nor loved my neighbor as myself. Forgive me for all I have done wrong and for the good I have left undone and lead me in your ways… “
Do you think the Pharisee might have gone away justified as well?