Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thank you, God, for making me better ...

... than 50% of the people out there. Then again, I suppose that would make God a respecter of persons. O:-)

And here was another parable that he told. It was aimed at those who were sure of their goodness and looked down on everyone else. 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood up and prayed thus: "I thank thee, O God, that I am not like the rest of men, greedy, dishonest, adulterous: or, for that matter, like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all that I get." But the other kept his distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat upon his breast, saying, "O God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am." It was this man, I tell you, and not the other, who went home acquitted of his sins. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18: 9-14.

I've been ruminating upon this passage, in connection with my opening sentence. So far in my life, there are instances where I'm thankful that I'm not like other people. That I'm not as arrogant, or that I'm more compassionate, or that I don't judge the way someone else does.

I do think that there are people I'm "better" than, in terms of good behavior. I don't think this in regards to every single good behavior out there. There are some behaviors that I'm horrible at, that other people are better at that I am. That's true of everything. I'm good at math: not everyone is. Other people are good at astrophysics. I can pretty much point out Orion's belt, the Dippers and possibly Cassiopeia.

But I'm not sure I can say the behavior goes against this parable, for a couple reasons. I think the crux of this is a matter of pride: it was aimed at those whose surety in their goodness caused them to look down on everyone else. It was as though they were saying, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as that person," and then went on with their lives, still self-focused.

We can see that in the parable itself. Three qualities are listed: greed, dishonesty and adultery. He doesn't thank God that he gives thousands of dollars to the poor, or feed the poor, or that he pursues justice. He is honest, he doesn't hoard things (whatever that means) and he doesn't cheat in marriage. But he doesn't go out of his way to love his neighbor as himself. Although he may have the "love self" very much under control.

He also points out two good things he does -- fasts, and tithes on whatever he receives. Those actions seem rather easy, as well. He fasts, which is self-focused. He denies himself food, but he doesn't say why. Is it for appearance, or does he honestly feel that it brings him closer to God? He also tithes. However, I'm not sure how tithing works back then. Does that just mean it was money paid to the temple, and the temple decided where the money went? Because that seems like an easy way to donate.

I just have an image of a very satisfied person, patting himself on the back. He found sins that would make him bad, but conveniently looks on the very sins that are easy for him to avoid. He then thanks God that he's not like those people, but he doesn't even thank God for creating him to not be attracted to those sins, or thank God for helping to avoid them. It's almost like the thanking God portion is perfunctory.

Then we have the closing words: whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. The Pharisee was exalting himself at the expense of others. He was prideful in his accomplishments, and bragging about them. Had he been humble, he would've thanked God for his strengths, while still being aware of what needs work, and being aware that it can be too easy to become prideful.

The thing about humility is that it's the opposite of pride. It should make one reflective. But if you know that you are a compassionate person, and go around saying how you aren't compassionate, then that's almost false humility. It looks like you just want people to praise how compassionate you are, that you're trying to get people to feed your ego. Which can be another aspect of pride.

Can you find yourself better at something, and not exalt yourself? Yes. Now, are there times I'm prideful that I'm better than everyone else? Oh, I'm sure. However, I, and I know others, who use those opportunity to say, "Okay, I find that behavior arrogant. Are there times when I'm arrogant like that? Or arrogant in other ways?" They use the situation as a training example, to be on watch for their own behavior. If I'm standing somewhere and thanking God that I'm not like so-and-so, and then I skip home, satisfied with myself, then I'm just bragging. The Pharisee was bragging, and using the sins of others to exalt himself. If I use the behavior of another, and say that I'm a compassionate person so long as I'm %0.0001 more compassionate than he is, then I'm not looking to better myself, I'm looking to justify my current behavior. I'm looking to an excuse to stay the way I am.

Or there are times when I'm just really grateful that I'm not like that. I think we've all had moments like those.

13 comments:

Heather W. Reichgott said...

Wow! I'm so glad I'm not like that Pharisee!

;)

OneSmallStep said...

Heather,

Lol! "Lord, thank You for not making me judgemental, and someone who constantly compares herself to others ..."

In seriousness, though, haven't there been moments when you've seen something and just been so incredibly grateful that you weren't like that? I'm grateful that I despise racism and sexism and stuff like that. But it's also a comparision. The trick seems to be to not get stagnant in this gratitude, and use that as a start point for one's righteousness.

SocietyVs said...

I have been thinking about this same idea for some while - and that parable always come to mind also. Here's my take (which is the same as yours on this):

The idea of comparison is the problem in that story. Someone that has it 'quite good' it would seem belittles someone that 'does not' - in their relation to God. There is also the problem of pride that one is better than another - on the basis of 'what they do and who they are'. That reveals a total lack of compassion in the one, but a total depth to recieve it in the other.

I used to think like that also - comparing my situation to another's and thanking God that it didn't happen to me. I grew older and more in my faith and I knew this was wrong to do - each of us is indivdual and the comparison thing tries to make me think of myself higher than another - when this is totally false.

It also robs someone of compassion for the other - which seems to be what is also addressed in that parable (although kinda left unmentioned). If I look at a divorce and say 'thank God that wasn't me - my life is stable' - it may also rob me of getting involved to help in some tangible way (since my life is stable). I have seen this happen also - people think just let it all play out and pray about it - when getting involved might actually help the one suffering. Think of the difference if that Pharisee leaned over and put his arm around the other person and comforted him?

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**Here's my take (which is the same as yours on this):**

Great minds think alike? :)

**I used to think like that also - comparing my situation to another's and thanking God that it didn't happen to me.**

It might depend on how the comparison is used, though. Take the divorce example. There would be a difference between looking at that and saying, "Thank God my life isn't as messed up as his," and then looking at a divorce and being thankful that you have been blessed with a strong marriage, that you don't have to experience that pain or suffering. It could make you more thankful for what you have, and thus because you clearly see what it would be like to lose your marriage, it makes you reach out to the one in the divorce, to offer help or compassion. The former is self-focused. The latter makes one aware of blessings, and the need of others.

**I have seen this happen also - people think just let it all play out and pray about it - when getting involved might actually help the one suffering. **

In situations like these, I think prayer gets used as a crutch. It's pretty much the easiest thing to do, because it's helping one absolve themselves of responsibility. They would say they have acted, through praying. But if that person needs food, or someone to listen, then what good does prayer do? I mean, say when we die, we do end up facing God on a throne, judging people one at a time. When it is pointed out how many people in pain we passed by, I don't see "But I prayed for each of them!" cutting it when what they needed was action.

**Think of the difference if that Pharisee leaned over and put his arm around the other person and comforted him?**

Well, that depends. The Pharisee's version of "comfort" might've included, "Hey, did you hear how glorious I am? Wallow in it! You'll feel better." :-P

DagoodS said...

OneSmallStep,

We compare ourselves all the time. It is how we learn to relate to each other. Starting in school, we were compared on our intellectual abilities. Some got A’s, some B’s, etc. We were compared in physical ability. Fastest Time. Longest Jump. Compared in our social abilities—Most Popular, Student of the week, etc.

You might beat me at math; I might beat you at history trivia. That sort of thing.

The more interesting thing is the translation over to “sins.” Whether we like to admit it or not, we categorize sins as some “worse” than others. One murder is bad. How many lies qualifies as one murder? Or is not being loving as bad as ____? (you fill in the blank) Curiously, even those with a claim of absolute morality each demonstrate their own relativity in this categorization of what is worse than others.

And, as humans, as much as we recognize others are “better” than us, we focus on those we are “better” than, in order to bolster our own self-esteem. Which means we are constantly comparing our “sins” to others. As long as we don’t murder, rape, or pillage a small village, we can always consider ourselves better than others.

What bothers me is how many Christians attempt to legislate morality that has no effect upon their own lives. Most are either heterosexual, or denying their own homosexuality so they spend hours and hours attempting to make homosexual marriage illegal. Won’t have any effect on them, but they can feel how great they are for making a “sin” they would never engage in become illegal.

Where are the Christians attempting to legislate their own morality and become better not force those others to be “better”?

One thing those cynic philosophers had right was focusing on correct oneself, and not on others.

OneSmallStep said...

DagoodS,

**We compare ourselves all the time. It is how we learn to relate to each other. **

This would lead to an interesting question: can societies survive without that comparison? In school, one of the driving forces behind getting my grades and being in Advance Placement classes was that I wanted to go to a good college with national recognition, if not global recognition. And I did. :)

But would I have done that if there wasn't a factor in place that compared me to how others performed? For instance, someone else could've had all "As." But if they only took the regular classes, then I would be a more perferable canditate, based on the AP classes.

We do this when electing officials. We do this when saying the US is a moral nation, compared to China (I know this is debatable for some). We do this when looking at our history, in comparing past to present. Religions do this.

**Which means we are constantly comparing our “sins” to others. As long as we don’t murder, rape, or pillage a small village, we can always consider ourselves better than others.**

Yup. And I absolutely love those comparisons, because then I'm the best person ever. :)

**Won’t have any effect on them, but they can feel how great they are for making a “sin” they would never engage in become illegal.**

I had a discussion on this with a conservative Christian friend. I forget how it started, but we were talking about the whole some sins worse than others, especially in matters involving sex. I pointed out to her that I found it very telling that a Christian singer known as Rebecca St. James soared to popularity on her song "Wait for Me" which dealt with remaining a virgin until marriage. If the song had dealt with poverty, or social justice, or stopping wars, I doubt the same type of popularity would've occured. It's like focusing on the "easy" sins which, as you say, wouldn't require any lifestyle change on their part.

Yael said...

OSS,
I found some suggested readings about the various sects in Judaism and have listed them in a comment on my blog.

I have not personally looked at any of these books aside from the two volumes on the Pharisees but they are recommended by the Melton course I am taking from Hebrew University. This course is quite liberal in outlook so I would think the recommended sources would paint a fairly balanced picture rather than only giving a very pro-traditional Judaism POV.

A history book you might find of interest is The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews. I found it quite riveting and also quite annoying! It certainly rocks the boat. Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews isn't quite so out there and is also a good read.

Some also recommend The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue. I started reading it but I found it too long winded for my liking and never finished it.

Sorry to divert from your topic, but I did want to point out these books to you since you asked and I had no response at that time.

Jim Jordan said...

An excellent Bible lesson, OSS. Clearly the temptation to compare ourselves to others is great, even snaring the righteous religious man in the parable. Instead, the tax collector compared himself to God. That's what we must do. Talk about being humbled.

Dagods - That's an interesting point about Christians and gay marriage. That's something to think about.

OneSmallStep said...

Jim,

But isn't saying the tax collector compared himself to God an assumption?

As it is, I find comparing oneself to God a little invalid, simply because it's not equal. It's like comparing a four year old to a mature adult, and getting mad at the four year old for not acting like an adult. God is perfect/has lots of omnis/is infinite and so forth. It is very easy for God to do the right thing because to do wrong goes against God's nature. Hence, it is easy for God to be perfect. In any other circumstance, we'd call that an unfair comparison, because we are pitting the person against something they simply cannot match. You compare someone against something that they actually stand a chance at meeting.

OneSmallStep said...

I should clarify how I mean comparison here. We seem to have two different ideas of humility going on right now. When you say that comparing oneself to God makes one humble, you seem to mean it in a way that the person becomes aware of how wretched/sinful one is. But does humility require that? Humility is simply lack of pride, not asserting oneself, or submitting to something. You can do any of that while not finding yourself evil. You can be really good at something, and grateful that you do it well, and so don't boast on it -- in that case, you're humble.

As for the comparison, I would advocate that, but not in the way I'm critiquing here -- in the way that requires oneself to see one as sinful, and only that way. Rather, if one wants to know how man was created, one looks back to the original image, and then adjusts accordingly. The differences between the two might seem non-existent, but in one case, it's using the comparison to God to find oneself 100% completely bad, and in the other case, it's wondering what one's true nature is, looking to the origin of that nature, and then adapting accordingly.

What I'm basically reacting to here is something I've seen before, in that one must live up to the example of Jesus, even though one will never succeed. That is a comparison I find unfair, if one never stood a chance in the first place.

arulba said...

The problem is, it's so hard to know whether we are actually "better" than others in terms of our goodness or ethical behaviors. More disciplined, perhaps. More self-controlled. But "better than"? Better than depends on a certain amount of relativism that is impossible to judge because nobody can be two people at once and we all come from different backgrounds and have different ideas about what is moral, ethical, and "good".

I definitely agree with you that the belief that we can be "better than" others is a stance we take to not have to reflect or change.

It smacked me hard a few years back when I went to a birthday party where everyone was asked to bring a canned good for the homeless which they would take to their church which would take it to a shelter. It was a nice idea, but there was just something so totally off about it which may have been different if there had actually been homeless people at the party but it was all wealthy people having a party in a gated community. So what exactly was the gift we were giving - that the birthday girl got to feel good about having a bunch of canned goods to drop off at her church for the homeless shelter? It just made me wonder about charity in general. If it doesn't connect us to others - if it makes us feel as though we are some how "good" without actually having to connect, then is it really charity? Or is it really just about taking?

Sorry. Didn't mean to go on so long. Interesting discussion and I guess I went a little off topic.

Personally, I believe it is possible to learn to transcend judgment comparisons but I'm not so sure we'll ever get rid of them. Maybe becoming aware of them is enough?

Lynet said...

I confess it: the sin of pride is one that I cannot do without. Without the joy and affirmation that I get from being capable, I simply wouldn't be able to like myself properly. I don't think there is a way of changing that, although I'm open to suggestions. In the mean time, though, mostly I try to accept that caring about being able to do things well will always be a part of me. Instead of trying to get rid of it, I think it would be better if I worked on mitigating the effects, by trying not to let my joy in achievement make others feel worse, and by trying not to judge people as a whole by their abilities in the few things I particularly care about doing well at.

OneSmallStep said...

Arulba,

**I definitely agree with you that the belief that we can be "better than" others is a stance we take to not have to reflect or change.**

Yes. It's very easy to set the standard incredibly low, and thus look superior. But you are hitting a major point, in that who would determine the standard? This would be why many say religion is necessary, in that we need an outside objective standard to provide right and wrong. But any outside standard would first have to be filtered through our subjective standard.

**It just made me wonder about charity in general. If it doesn't connect us to others - if it makes us feel as though we are some how "good" without actually having to connect, then is it really charity? Or is it really just about taking?**

It's almost like the best of both worlds. They were doing something they knew was helping, as the homeless need food. But it's almost like superficial helping, because you don't have to interact with those you are helping. Plus, one canned of good given once a year wouldn't really accomplish much, and if you were actually interacting with the homeless, you'd see how much is required to help them. But if you don't, then you can be satisfied with your one can of food.

Lynet,

Perhaps in some ways, pride is necessary for survival. For instance, I take pride in the things I'm good at. It took me a long time to be good at them, and it took a lot of work to be where I am. Parents take pride in their offspring, or spouse, or friends, and that is considered fine. Why can't the same level of pride be used with ourselves? The difference would be that this is taking pride in something someone does well, where the type of pride in the parable is pride in being better/superior to others.

So pride might be tied to self-worth, in a way. If we have someone who is in an abusive situation, and wakes up one day and says that they are better than this, isn't that pride, in a way? But it's healthy pride, because it's helping the person escape a harmful situation.