Luke 18:9-14 (CEV)
9 Jesus told a story to some people who thought they were better than others and who looked down on everyone else:
10 Two men went into the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood over by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, and unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad that I am not like that tax collector over there. 12 I go without eating for two days a week, and I give you one tenth of all I earn.”
13 The tax collector stood off at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up toward heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, “God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner.”
14 Then Jesus said, “When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honoured.”
The ‘Better Than’ Game
Most of us have met people who seem to have a ‘holier-than-thou’ kind of attitude. They seem to have worked out some sort of social pecking order, and assigned points to each of their actions – maybe a little bit like one of those Facebook quizzes that give you six points for every little old lady helped across the street and deduct 17 points for every swear word uttered.
One of the things I always find odd is the list they come up with, and the points ranking they attach to it. I mean, how is caring for the elderly only six points if you’re going to deduct 17 points when I use the word “sucks” in the context of describing how horrible I feel about a friend breaking their leg?
Or if you dig down deeper, they might give out 27 points for knowing the exact reference for a trite Bible reference, but completely fail to deduct any points for telling a woman “she asked for it” in the context of sexual harassment.
The problem with all of this points-calculating, of course, is that eventually somebody finds out about that thing you weren’t reporting on your points card – like in the Ashley Madison fiasco.
Or someone comes along and introduces a new set of points that threaten to completely take you out of the running – like with the #NashvilleStatement.
Jesus’ response to all of this is to do a simple compare-and-contrast with the people he’s walking through the Temple with. The object lesson seems to simply present itself.
Here’s one guy, over here, who’s playing the ‘better than’ game. He’s been playing it for a long time, and he figure’s he’s got it pretty well sorted out.
On the other hand, here’s this other guy, who’s only ever lived in a ‘better than’ game, but has realized that there is no circumstance where the points he has or doesn’t have could ever end up with a winning hand.
So he’s opted out.
He’s ditched the game in favour of some point-blank honesty.
And Jesus gives him credit for this.
Jesus holds him up as having done a good thing because he was humble and decided to care more about the truth than about pretending that he had this all figured out.
And right now, in a world of global warming, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation committees, and hurricane’s that haven’t been responded to – not to mention the way I short-changed my kids yesterday because I really wanted to finish watching my show on Netflix – I have all sorts of opportunities to live into Jesus’ story today.
There are so many things in this world that are not the way they are supposed to be.
So many ways that I have let God down.
So many ways the church has let God down.
So many ways that people who call themselves Christians have let God down.
And so many ways that our interactions and communal brokenness as a society have fallen so far short of the wholeness and shalom that God intended for us to live within.
Yet this pull and this tug towards the ‘better than’ game is awfully attractive for some reason.
Even right now – even among those who are doing everything they can think of to distance themselves from the childhood games of ‘better than’ that they grew up with – there are still so many people playing the game across the new lines of feminism, liberalism, activism and political ideologies, as if that makes the game any less problematic.
Why not set down the points cards and just be honest – with ourselves, with God, even with each other?
I’ve really screwed up – and so has the society I am a part of.
I’ve hurt people I care about – sometimes really badly.
I’ve accidentally and even on-purpose said things that made things worse instead of better, or failed to do things that could have made things better instead of worse.
Who knows? There is probably at least one thing just in this post that isn’t quite the way God intended it to be.
But I know this – the only way to better is going to be letting go of the ‘better than’ game.
- In what ways are you tempted to play the ‘better than’ game?
- Have you (like me) ever been tempted to play the ‘better than’ game against another group of ‘better than’ players?
- What would it look like for you to let go of ‘better than’ and reach for humility and honesty instead?