I’m working my way through some of the 39 Articles in a Sunday-morning class called “We Used to Believe What?” I’m picking the controversial topics that 21st-century Christians don’t think about quite as often, and yesterday’s subject was predestination. We had a great discussion. At one point, when I asked the group to talk about their experience of predestination, someone said, “Have you ever thought about the fact that you were born in the small, southern town where you were born and not in a slum in Calcutta? What does that say about predestination?” It says everything. And the conversation that ensued was eye-opening. As best I can tell, whether you think God had a hand in that or not, every morning you should still be thankful for the life you have been given no matter where you wake up in the morning.
This coming Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 18:9-14) isn’t about predestination, but the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector has a line in it that reminds me of yesterday’s discussion: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It’s the prayer of the self-righteous (though admittedly grateful) Pharisee. As I read this story and hear that prayer, I find myself wanting to humanize the easy-to-disparage Pharisee. Why? Because he’s me and everyone I go to church with every Sunday.
I am grateful to God that I have been given the life I live. So little of it is the product of my own work. Parents, social network, personal skills and abilities, childhood experiences—all of it is gift. I could have just as easily been born into a difference circumstance—poverty, instability, conflict, hopelessness. Should I be thankful for that? Yes. Should I respond to it by fasting twice a week and giving away a tenth of my income? Yes. Should I sit in my office and look out my window at the people walking up the sidewalk with overdue power bill in hand coming to ask me for financial assistance and be grateful that I’m not them? I don’t think so. But why not?
There’s a line between being thankful for what one has been given and being thankful for whom one is not. Comparative gratitude works in the abstract hypothetical but not in the specific. Yes, I’m thankful I’m not a starving child in India. But I don’t know any starving children in India. I’ve never been to India. When I give thanks for that, my focus isn’t really on the possibility that exists so far away. My focus is on what I have been given—that for which I’m genuinely grateful. But when that abstract becomes tangible—when the thing I’m thankful to not be walks in my door—I’ve instantly gone from being grateful to haughty.
Many of us know this parable. We know the shock-value it contains. “How could a tax collector—the scum of the earth—possibly be justified in place of the clearly righteous Pharisee?” Yeah, yeah, we get it. But I want to go deeper. I want to say that the Pharisee’s mistake is ignoring the fact that even if he had been a thief, rogue, adulterer, or tax collector, he would still have the opportunity to be grateful. Even when born in the most pitiable of circumstances, we still have the opportunity to be grateful. The sin I want to hear more about isn’t the sin of self-righteousness. It’s the sin of denying the potential righteousness of others—even in a prayer of genuine gratitude. That’s complicated. That’s closer to home.