Watch out for prideful perfection

We can be both Pharisee and Tax Collector. Don't we, though, concentrate more on being perfect than being horrified at our sin? Being perfect is the more difficult condition with God. 

It’s not good that we’re this way. It’s extremely important, though, to remind ourselves that God is aware that temptations are powerful elixirs, slow-cooked awfulness that tastes delicious, ruining us with incessant regularity. It’s not OK, but we are always forgiven by God’s readily available and loving glee when we return to him.

Image by Anastasia Gepp

Look at me, I've got it all together

By John Pearring
Hoseah 6:1-6
Luke 18:9-14

Jesus has a clever way of identifying sin. He categorizes folks into two camps of people where both are ensconced in sin — the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. According to the extremes in today’s gospel, anyway. 

Jesus tells us that we who live perfect lives don’t realize we're sinners. We perfect folks think God can’t help but love us because we’re so darn good. And, there is the other group where we're also card-carrying members. We know we are sinners. When burdened with guilt, we plead with God to love us anyway. We fret that God can’t love us due to our egregious behavior.

I’d like to zero in a little closer when we're in the perfect class of folks. There’s more here than I originally thought. The man or woman who thinks they've reached perfection is actually quite an impressive person. In Jesus' tale, though, he’s also a dolt, but his perfection is the stuff of legend.

We're a little bit of both types of folks — both Pharisee and Tax Collector. Don't we, though, concentrate more on being perfect than being horrified at our sin? Being perfect is the more difficult condition with God and yet that's the road we more often choose. Repentance isn’t an American trait. We citizens of the USA are unduly prone to consider ourselves exceptional. We're better. It's an addictive national pride, which is great if we want the same for every other country. 

If pushed to look at our failings, we deflect. We tell God to help others in their sins and difficulties. “I’m doing great, God. Help out these other poor slobs.” The last thing we want is God up in our business. We'll fix our issues on our own, thank you very much.

Jesus calls the imperfect fellow the better man. Most commentators wax eloquently about such repentance. That’s fine. His sinful protagonist, the tax collector, is overwhelmed by temptation’s financial rewards. Yet, that nose-in-the-air “Oh Perfect One?" does everything correctly in the eyes of the law. His only temptation is pride. 

If I’m right by suggesting we spend most of our time acting like the Pharisee, and not like the repentant tax collector, the pride stuff trumps our perfect selves. Our spiritual life is in more danger than we think. What's so wrong with being perfect?

Jesus identifies perfection through the eyes of the audacious Pharisee. To make him more personal, I’ll name him Eustace.

According to Eustace, perfection asks that we avoid four specifically awful things — greedy, dishonest, adultery, and the insidious temptations of a tax collector. That’s the avoidance aspect of perfection. On the proactive side, two difficult practices are what make us holy — fasting and tithing. It’s a fairly simple equation. Don’t do four bad things, and do two good things instead. It’s a very neat package.

The four don’ts sound pretty bad, and not something any of us want to think we do. In fact, we’re certainly a little bit of the first three items and a surprising regular offender of the fourth. We’re all a little greedy, a tiny bit dishonest, and a smidge adulterous. Think about it. We hold back some chocolates just for ourselves. We sneakily leave off some earnings from our taxes. And, we probably wallow for a few seconds (maybe more) in dirty thoughts before we get sorely disgusted with ourselves. 

Now, on the fourth offense, we may not imagine that our employment, investments, or earning potential matches that of a tax collector. Do any of us legally extort money from our clients? I think we do. The opportunity is there in almost every job and business opportunity. Not just taxation, but in every single industry. Think about how those of us in retail or vendor supply industries adjust our prices and profits. Isn’t one of the mantras of sales, advertising, and customer service contracts to charge as much as the market will bear? It’s perfectly legal and even encouraged. Insurance, healthcare, legal fees, government contracts are fraught with legendary extortions. Who’s exempt from this temptation? 

I’m not casting aspersions here. (An aspersion is to make false or damaging accusations, or to insinuate false and damaging things.) So, if you’re perfect and not an extortionist, pretzeling extra dollars and percentages from clients or vendors, you just might be like this impressively good Pharisee. See what I did there? The good Pharisee is actually not like the tax collector because he's so good. And, yet he makes us feel so bad...

I’m not picking on a specific person. I just don’t believe that anybody is perfect. Jesus is toying with us to shake our world. Hey, we may not be awful, but I’m fairly certain we’re all periodically tawdry. Tawdry is just a minuscule version of awful. Still awful, just not so’s we wanna go throw up behind a tree and hide in the forest. We just ignore tawdry, because it’s not as bad as awful.

Those are the don’ts. The holy side of the “perfection” equation given by Eustace is very interesting. Eustace fasted twice a week and tithed all of his income. That might sound just as easy as refraining from the four awful things, at first. Just like I popped the “I’m not a bad person bubble” with the tawdry label, which makes us all sinners, I submit that we’re incapable of the fasting and fully accountable tithing that Eustace nails. He's too perfect. Plus, it doesn't get him what he thinks it does.

Eustace fasts twice a week. Fasting twice a week is darned hard. Once a week we might pull off, but every week? Bread and water two days a week? That’s a stretch. But, Eustace thinks it makes him holy. He's a champion at it! 

I think lots of us try some form of perfection. We truly believe that sacrificing, showing others how good we are, is going to get us a high five from God. Aren’t you proud when folks notice how good you are? 

How about that tithing thing? Tithing to the Church one-tenth of everything you earn — including assets, winnings, found cash, and gifts — is also pretty darn hard. It’s an accounting nightmare for some of us. Find a quarter, and then you’ve got to find 2.5 cents to put into the kitty. Sheesh. 

Fasting and tithing as tools to manipulate God presents two problems. First, we stereotype God as some judge at a beauty contest. Second, we buy him off. We pay our tax for his love. Some tithe like they're paying off the mob. Others do so because they need to get God's attention, thinking he'll do things for us.

Tithing and sacrificing, though, do make us feel good. No doubt about it. The idea of governing our desires and disciplining our finances to always include a portion for God are truly holy things. They are also very difficult things to do. Do we do them for God, though? it’s tempting to impress people with our goodness. Do we sacrifice and tithe so that only God sees us? In the quiet, behind closed doors? Or do we do it so that others think we’re holy in their eyes? 

Clearly, doing good stuff is no less difficult than not being bad. To place a hold on our desires and commit everything we have to honor God requires a spiritual maturity that only repentance teaches us. To strive for perfection, we need the heart of Jesus' penitent tax collector.

Jesus shows us an impressive guy in this Eustace fellow. The winning features for Eustace the Pharisee, even as amazing as they are, end up ruined by hubris and narcissism. 

“You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”

Eustace is clearly a rare fellow. He fulfills difficult goals at perfection. In our world, we love the Eustace types, even in their self-aggrandizement. It's so weird. We applaud bold and outrageous accomplishments. Eustace is akin to the rare Olympian athlete who stands on the podium as the best in his competition. For a few seconds he wins, and he is living the dream. Many of us are even jealous of such disciplined success. 

The whole world sees how great we art. Exercising your gifts at that level requires an impressive array of discipline and commitments. These folks endure a public pressure where honoring God, being self-deprecating, and having to repent in the eyes of the world become unique opportunities for God. How would we fare if given that challenge?

The Pharisee is on sure footing when he claims to the world that his life is one of purity and honesty. Granted, he’s pompous and socially offensive, but in sports, entertainment, business, and politics we’re still impressed by such a person’s initiative and dedication. Even if they are a pompous ass. "Wow," we say. Such perfection is "exalted among men."

In truth, we change positions with Eustace and the Tax Collector all the time. We’re most often Pharisees, simply due to the driven world of success. Every now and again, we awaken to our tax collector lifestyle and we crawl on our knees to God. 

It’s not good that we’re this way. It’s extremely important, though, to remind ourselves that God is aware that temptations are powerful elixirs, slow-cooked awfulness that tastes delicious, ruining us with incessant regularity. It’s not OK, but we are always forgiven by God’s readily available and loving glee when we return to him.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” Thank God for that, because we’ll come running back to him. “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

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