To illustrate the need for humility, Jesus tells a curious story about how a Pharisee and a tax collector happened to enter the Temple at the same time to pray. We are not told if this was a real event or a story that Jesus made up. I want to think that it was the former given the amount of detail and how this episode seems to square with knowledge of myself and observation of others.
Luke 18:11-12 tells us that the Pharisee was praying to himself in such a way as to let the people around him hear the prayer. God already knew his character and praying this out loud did nothing for his relationship with God. Perhaps this little public service announcement would enhance the Pharisee’s reputation, but I wonder. Nobody likes a smug, self absorbed know-it-all.
I have known people over the years that function as if they have inside knowledge on how to be a mature believer. These are the folks who feel superior to others in the church because they think they have elevated spirituality and knowledge. If you want to know what’s wrong in the church, these are the people to consult. These modern Pharisees are poison to the unity of the local church. True fellowship cannot happen when Pharisees are involved.
Contrast this to the tax collector in Luke 14:13. He came into the Temple understanding his need for forgiveness. Jesus tells us that the tax collector left the Temple with forgiveness and the Pharisee did not.
What Mr. Chesterton understood, and what the Apostle Paul affirms in Romans 7, is that we never arrive at perfection in this life. None of us is in a position to feel superior to those around us. We all have an innate tendency toward sin. We all are a mess waiting to happen without the work of God in our lives.
While I may do a good job of hiding it, I am more like the Pharisee that I would like to admit. I may not be so bold and brash as to yell out praise to myself in the worship service, but I can respond in pride instead of humility. Is it only me, but when we read this story, isn’t our tendency to think, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee”? Perhaps there is a little bit of that Pharisee in each of us, which makes the story all the more poignant.
If each of us comes into fellowship with the attitude of humility, then we can begin to have real fellowship. If one or more of us comes with an attitude of superiority then it will be difficult to have anything more than superficial unity.
I don’t want to be the guy who scuttles fellowship with my pride. The church needs all of us to practice the humility that Paul describes in Philippians 2:3-8. Our mission, our fellowship and our legacy are at stake. It is humility that wins the day.