Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What We See In Others

The thing that bothers you most about other people is actually the thing that bothers you most about yourself.

I can't remember when I first heard that, but I can remember how it felt to have my soul split open, my life diagnosed, and my weakness exposed when I heard it. Suddenly, the names and faces of the people who had frustrated me most over the years came flooding back as I realized that the part of them that hooked me was me. I'll save the content of that revelation for the sacrament of reconciliation, but I trust that you can identify in your own experience the ways in which your frustrations in others are a reflection of your frustrations in yourself.

This Sunday, when we hear the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), we get several layers of gut-wrenching self-examination sandwiched together in a remarkably concise account.

First, there's the Pharisee in the story: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." What an ass! Jesus identifies him in terms that leave no room for sympathy. The parable sets up an incompatible collision of religiosity and arrogance. Because of the way he looks at the tax collector, you don't need to know anything more to understand that the Pharisee's piety is misplaced.

But there's also another character in the story, whom Luke brings in right at the beginning: "Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt." It's us. Or, at least, in theory it's us. Whoever is listening, whoever needs to hear this parable, whoever hears the parable and thinks, "What an ass!" is involved in the parable, too. We get hooked by the Pharisee's hypocrisy because we, too, are hypocrites.

Think about the parable. It isn't designed to teach us that we shouldn't say prayers like that of the Pharisee. And it isn't designed to teach us that praying, fasting, and tithing are futile. It's designed to draw us into the life of the tax collector--the humble, honest introspection that leads to a plea for mercy. And we can't get there as long as we're pointing fingers at other hypocrites.

Maybe I'm the only one who effortlessly points a finger at the Pharisee and says, "Thank God I'm not like that Pharisee who thinks so highly of himself and holds others in contempt." But I doubt it.

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