The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. - Luke 18:11
This has to be one of the Lord¡¯s most accessible parables. The moment we read it, we recognize the ugliness and folly of self-satisfaction, especially that common form of self-exaltation that reinforces itself by dwelling on the faults of others. In its own time, though, this obvious message was set in startling contrast to the cast of characters. The Pharisees were the good guys, and the publicans were the bad guys. To get something of the intended impact of the story, then, we need to find equivalents in our own time. For the Pharisee, we might look to anyone who is thought of as a pillar of the community--perhaps someone who is active in the town¡¯s Conservation Commission, someone everyone respects and trusts. For the publican, we might think of a drug dealer.
The Lord was not telling people that they should become publicans. Publicans were tax-collectors. To quote the little concordance at the back of my Bible,
The taxes were farmed by rich Roman citizens of the Equestrian Order, or sometimes by a joint-stock company at Rome, who had agents in the provinces (portitores) to arrange the actual collection from the people. These agents were the Publicans of the Gospels. They were universally despised. They had large opportunities for unscrupulous gains.
These were the people who came to your house and took your money or your produce in the name of the occupying armies of Rome. These were the people who got rich not by working, but by keeping you poor. Worst of all, these were not Romans, but Jews--your own people, who had decided to feather their nests by collaborating with the oppressors.
The Pharisees were the backbone of Judaism. It was abundantly clear from the writings of the prophets that the survival of the nation depended on its obedience to the Lord¡¯s laws. When Jews had returned from exile in Babylon centuries ago, they had resolved never again to make the mistakes that had led to disaster. They would learn the laws, and they would obey them. As with many resolutions, this was honored as much in the breach as in the observance, but there were always the faithful few who really tried. In Gospel times, some of these identified themselves as ¡°Pharisees,¡± meaning ¡°separated ones.¡± They are thought to have numbered about six thousand, and focused on religious fidelity rather than on political goals.
There could be no question about which was behaving better. When Jesus described them as paying tithes on little things and omitting love and justice, he said, ¡°these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.¡± He did not disapprove of what they did, and in fact accused them of not living up to their own standards. What he disapproved of so strenuously was a spirit of fidelity that bolstered itself by demeaning others. Swedenborg describes this as polluting the good that is done by filling it with a sense of merit.
In a way, this is understandable. There are a good many thoughtful people in the helping professions who feel that low self-esteem lies at the root of most if not all of their clients¡¯ problems. Whether or not this is the case, it certainly seems clear that when we are feeling worthless, incompetent, or unloveable, we are not likely to be much use to anyone including ourselves. It is natural to resist these feelings, and it is natural for that resistance to take the form of trying to convince ourselves that we are really pretty good. Once that happens, it is a short step to the effort to see ourselves as better than others, which in turn inclines us to try to see them as worse than ourselves.
There is an implication here that we should not overlook. It is that the Pharisee is running scared. If he really felt a sense of the Lord¡¯s loving presence in his life, he would not need to look down on the publican. He is not arguing with you or with me, but with himself. There is a voice inside him saying that he is worthless, and he is working overtime to prove it wrong.
In fact, there is no way we can draw a fair comparison between ourselves and any other human being. The reason is simple--we experience ourselves from the inside, and others from the outside. We see what they look like to us, but not what we look like to them. We are aware of our own feelings and thoughts, but not of theirs. So when we compare ourselves to others, we are in a way comparing our intention with their performance. We are comparing what we are trying to accomplish with what they are actually doing. Once we see ourselves on videotape, we realize how differently others see us from the way we ¡°see¡± ourselves.
There is,though, a subtler form of this same tendency. In psychology, in is known as ¡°ego extension,¡± and it involves identifying with a group and finding our own value in its superiority. It is all too easy to do this with our churchi n specific or with our religion in general. One of the missionary tactics in the early days of our church was to challenge a local minister to theological debate; and in the debate, the effort would be to show that his theology was less adequate than ours. One of the standard ways of fostering institutional loyalty is to teach members the inadequacies of alternative institutions.
In its extreme form, this approach led to such monuments of bigotry as the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the virtual extermination of native American religions. A historian could undoubtedly come up with many other instances, less and less obviously violent, until we finally arrived at apparently innocuous practices by which we still tend to defend our own beliefs. We want to find the weaknesses, let us say, in the doctrine of reincarnation. We want to be able to refute the doctrine that the church is infallible, or that formal penance actually delivers us from the consequences of sin. If ¡°they¡± are right, then ¡°we¡± are wrong, so we have to prove them wrong in order to feel secure about out own beliefs.
If we take our own theology seriously, though, then all this misses the point. We are assured that we do not have possession of divine truth--that our own minds are not capable of grasping it. What we do have are ¡°appearances¡± which can serve as truths if we use them compassionately--if, in traditional language, ¡°they have good in them.¡± If they have evil in them, then no matter how accurate they may be as descriptions of reality, they function as falsities in our inner processes. That is, they strengthen the illusion that we are doing all right on our own.
This brings us very directly to the remedy. At first, it seems as though there is no solution possible. We are in difficulties if we think we are worthless, and we are in difficulties if we think we are worthwhile. What these two apparent opposites have in common, though, is that in both instances we are really thinking about ourselves as discrete individuals, quite separates both from our Creator and from each other. We are assuming that we have some kind of quality apart from the Lord¡¯s presence in us and apart from the communities to which we belong.
This, we are told, simply is not so. We are constituted by the Lord¡¯s life flowing into us from within and meeting that same life as it comes to us through the world around us. We are utterly incapable of living isolated lives, of surviving in a vacuum. Deeply engraved in us are the figures of our parents and teachers, our friends and families. They are part of who we are. In his remarkable little book, Observations on the Growth of the Mind (Boston: Adonis Howard, 1929, p. 24), Sampson Reed remarks, ¡°An event appears to be explained, when it is brought within the pale of those youthful feelings and associations, which in their simplicity do not ask the reason of things.¡± That is, we could as ¡°why¡± forever, but actually there comes a mysterious point when we feel satisfied that an explanation is complete. Reed, I think very rightly, claims that this sense of adequacy is developed in childhood. It will vary from one person to another, adding a significant dimension to our individuality.
Part of the remedy for self-righteousness, then, is simply recognizing that we are very finite creatures, with a perspective shaped by past experience and present circumstance. If we were elsewhere, things would look different. If we were that other person, that person we are inclined to criticize, we would find that there is a rationale for the behavior that we want to disapprove.
This is only part of the remedy, though. By itself, it is inadequate because in plunges us into a sea of relativity, where every person¡¯s conduct is just ad good as that of every other. What is needed still is the realization that we are also constituted by the flow of life from the Divine at our inmost center. This is the absolute. We are assured that what is flowing into us is pure love and wisdom, perfectly united. We are informed that these become separated and dimmed, as it were, as they flow down and out into the levels of our consciousness, and that they may actually take forms diametrically opposed to their intrinsic nature. Swedenborg uses the image of pure and brilliant sunlight flowing on the one hand into a rose and on the other into a manure pile.
Whether we are looking at ourselves or at others, then, the first question we need to be asking is ¡°What is the Lord up to here?¡± Whatever the circumstance, there is a divine presence, which means that there is a flawless effort to accomplish something for the eternal welfare of all those involved. If we do not see what that effort is, then we simply do not understand what is going on; and if we do not understand what is going on, then we are surely in no position whatever to pass judgment.
This means, I suspect, that we are called to go through life under a banner of considerable ignorance, but that is not such a liability as it might seem. For one thing, a recognition of ignorance is prerequisite to learning, and the more aware we are of the constancy of our unknowing, the more observant we will be and the more we will discover. For another thing, nothing more certainly leads us into grief than the mistaken assumption that we know what is going on. As Will Rogers said, ¡°It ain¡¯t what people don¡¯t know as hurts them, it¡¯s what they do know that ain¡¯t so.¡± Or as our Lord said, ¡°Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.¡±
And this finally brings us to the Holy Supper. It is telling us one of the most ordinary, inescapable facts of life--that without food and drink from the outside, we cannot survive. Our souls are no more self-sufficient than our bodies.