Someone has said that we live in the age of “the comparison trap.” In some ways, this has always been a temptation: to keep up with the Joneses. In the age of social media, however, this temptation has become ubiquitous. No longer are we tempted to compare ourselves only with our immediate neighbours. Thanks to social media, we can easily be tempted to compare ourselves far more broadly. This is seldom a good thing, and never more damaging than when we compare ourselves spiritually to others.
To be sure, there is a healthy approach to comparison. Paul told the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ. Church members are instructed to follow the example of their leaders. Imitation implies comparison. But there is a difference between comparison for the sake of imitation and comparison for the purpose of self-exaltation.
In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus “told [a] parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” As the parable makes clear, there were some who compared their spirituality to others. They believed that they were justified before God because they weren’t as bad as other people. Jesus challenged this thinking with a stark parable.
The parable concerned a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. Pharisees were the epitome of ethical and religious virtue. Tax collectors were the very opposite. It was not unexpected to find a Pharisee praying in the temple, but tax collectors would not be expected to darken the doors of the temple. We expect pastors to pray in the church, but not drug dealers! But the two prayers revealed the heart of each pray-er.
The Pharisee prayed “standing by himself.” He was so superior to others that he would not be seen praying with them. The CSB reads that the Pharisee was “praying like this about himself.” He was the focus of his prayers. Either translation will work.
The Pharisee started his prayer correctly: “God.” His prayer soon turned to himself. In the space of two verses, he referenced himself five times. To be sure, the religious actions he mentioned are respectable enough. He expressed gratitude, generosity, righteousness, and faithfulness—all qualities that we should pursue as Christians. Indeed, he went above and beyond. The Old Testament required only a single annual fast, but he fasted twice a week. The Old Testament required a tithe only on certain items, but he tithed on everything. There was much, outwardly, to admire about the Pharisee. But his prayer fell short. He left the temple that day unjustified—unlike the tax collector.
The tax collector’s prayer began the same way—“God”—but he immediately headed in a different direction. Far from focusing on self—or, more specifically, self-righteousness—he focused on his deep sinfulness and the mercy that he needed from God. He recognised himself to be “a sinner”—or, literally, “the sinner,” since the definite article is used in the Greek. He compared himself to no one but viewed his sin in light of God’s holiness and therefore recognised his need for mercy.
Too often, we evaluate our walk with God in Pharisaic terms. We compare ourselves to others. Our church attendance is better. Our Bible reading is more consistent. Our children are better behaved. Our marriage is more stable. We feel better about ourselves because we fare better on the comparison scale.
Conversely, we feel terrible when we don’t match up. We feel miserable because other spouses don’t fight like we do, other children don’t rebel like ours do, and other church members never miss a day in their Bible reading like we do. When the scales tip against us, we feel condemned.
This parable reminds us that we are nothing before God without mercy. “Mercy” here translates an unusual word, which literally means “propitiation”: atonement for sin by means of a blood sacrifice. We are what we are before God only on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection. Apart from his lifeblood, we are hopeless. Because of his lifeblood, we are accepted on our best day as well as our worst day.
As you reflect on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, be done with the comparison game. Rejoice in the fact that you are accepted in the beloved. And, if you are not, cry out to him for mercy to be accepted today.