I have this theory (formulated in high school, I think) that we like someone better when we don’t think that they are better than us. There’s a sense of superiority in being better at (or knowing more about) something than the next person, as well as some freedom from guilt when we see others doing a better job than us (whether at school, work, parenting, or life in general).
However, as we mature, I think that we start to appreciate being around those who help us improve ourselves: those who we can learn from, emulate, and – as Proverbs 27:17 reminds us – help us sharpen each other. We may seek out mentors, teachers, and even philosophers, so that we grow as a result of their shared wisdom. (At that point, though, I think that we still dislike someone who dwells on the idea that they are better than us – whether or not that’s true – and boastfully reminds us of this self-held belief.)
As we continue in this series on quotes from the first-century Pharisees (as recorded in the Bible), the next passage is from a parable of Jesus. As a result, the following passage might not describe an actual Pharisee (i.e., it might have been just an example). Regardless, it was apparently not sufficiently out of character for the Pharisees; at least, not to the point that the parable lost its effectiveness as an illustration to its original hearers.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer : ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
Luke 18:11-12 NLT
Before we jump to judgment here, and start to imagine other people who are like this Pharisee, it’s probably good to inspect our own hearts. Do we think that we are better than other people? Note that this character in Jesus’ parable isn’t claiming that he can ply a particular trade better than the next guy. There are measurable ways in which God has gifted human beings differently, with a creative mix of skills, talents, and abilities. Instead, though, the Pharisee is making a moral comparison between himself and some sort of “other people”: a category from which he enumerates several specific examples.
Most people who have followed Jesus for a while have encountered at least the second verse of the following passage, whether reading it directly from the Bible, or hearing a lesson about it from someone else:
This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Romans 3:22-24 NIV
We like to throw around the middle part of this passage as a general reminder that everyone sins, I guess. However, if we stop there, I think that we are missing out on two really important points.
For one thing, if we just stop at the “for all have sinned” part of this passage and agree that everyone sins, we miss out on the standard by which we are measured. Although multiple translations (including the one above) express the thing that we “fall short of” as the glory of God, the New Living Translation of Romans 3:23 includes the phrase, “we all fall short of God’s glorious standard”. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the point that this implies: if we fall short, there must be something that we fall short of. God’s perfect holiness and His unfathomable glory are untainted perfection. Our sinful lives are not.
Pastors and teachers have described judgments of “relative righteousness” (i.e., comparing each our sins to someone else’s) in various ways, but to say that we sin less (or differently) than the next person is like bragging that we can jump a few inches higher than another player on our basketball team, when the goal is to jump up and touch the moon. Even physical comparisons like this can still cause us to think about righteousness on relative terms, though, and we might miss another point: even if we were somehow 99.94% pure (like Ivory soap), it doesn’t matter. God’s holiness isn’t a “good enough” sort of attribute. We might “eat a little poison every day”, as minute toxins are present in our diet and our body can handle it, but God’s nature is incompatible with any and every sin, no matter how big or how small.
The other reason that we can’t limit our knowledge to merely saying, “everybody’s a sinner”, is that we would miss the good news in this chapter from Romans. Yes, everybody sins, but each person can also be saved. It doesn’t matter who you are: in this passage, the difference was between “Jew or Gentile” (which, since Gentile means “non-Jew”, covers everyone), and in John 3:16, it’s the world (which also covers everyone). The point of understanding our sins is to realize why we need a Savior (Jesus Christ), and the mission for those who have accepted Jesus as their Redeemer is to share the good news. Christians are not rescued from their sins to condemn others; rather, they are called to tell other sinners how to find the same freedom that they have experienced.
So, what do we do when we believe that we are better than someone else (or, when others believe that they are better than us)? In both cases, I suggest that we react like the tax collector whose story Jesus followed up with in Luke 18:13-14. That is, we respond in humility, comparing ourselves only against God’s standard, and admitting our sins. Then, we ask for God’s mercy on ourselves, so that we may claim God’s great gift of salvation and restoration back to a happy relationship with Him.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.