Life isn’t a competition.
You wouldn’t necessary think so to listen to some people. We’ve all met those who delight in getting a bargain, and have paid less for something than others. There’s nothing worse than going on holiday and hearing the people at the next table gloat about how they paid much less for their holiday than you. Or those who get access to something rare and exclusive, then love to crow about it; perhaps a seat upgrade on a plane, or the guest list for a VIP event. The sort of things, in fact, that usually never happen to the rest of us.
And then there are the people who delight in telling you how they talked their way out of a tricky situation, like the time they were caught speeding but wangled their way out of getting a ticket. Or how they managed to claim benefits to which they weren’t entitled, or used clever accountancy to get out of paying taxes, and feel smart for getting one over on the system.
What all those people have in common is they live their lives as if it is a competition and they only feel they have succeeded when they get something over on the rest of us.
Well its easy to think about such people and tut-tut at them, but Jesus tells a story (Luke 18.9-14) in which we might be made to realise that we are all a little bit competitive, that we all have people we like to look down on as a way of making us feel more successful and better. Or sometimes we might even put ourselves down by comparing ourselves unfavourably to others we believe to be better or more successful than us, which is just as bad. It is a kind of competitive way of living which operates through comparisons, out if which we either seek a false sense of security or reassurance about our own goodness, or fuel low self-esteem because we can only see ourselves as a failure in comparison to others who are brighter, more succesful, richer, better looking or more popular.
In the time of Jesus it was the religious leaders who most obviously looked down on others. In this story he illustrates that point:
‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “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.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
In Britain we love an underdog: that person who seems least likely to triumph then succeeds against all the odds. Reading this parable of Jesus might easily play to those instincts. There’s the sleazy, swindling tax collector who comes good in the end, while the proud upstanding religious leader is brought low by his own self-regard and pride.
Tread very carefully here. It isn’t a competition. Do not be too quick to identify yourself with the little guy who comes good in the end. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that the person most of us should identify with is the Pharisee — the one who is not humble enough to see himself as he really is; the one who looks down on others and stokes his own pride by comparing himself with somebody else.
Of course the repentant tax collector does come good in the end. But the Pharisee isn't altogether a bad person either. He really has given away a tenth of his income; he actually does fast twice a week. He is a good faithful person. The mistake he makes, though, is that his righteousness is centred on himself and not on God. This is the point that the cheating tax collector understands. His righteousness comes from God. And when you get that point, you understand that it is not our place to judge other people, to compare ourselves with them or form opinions about whether we are better or worse than them. Because for all of us, true righteousness can only come from God, not through anything we have done but through God’s grace.
As the saying goes, the ground at the foot of the cross is level. There is no cause to play the competitive game of insiders and outsiders, who’s better and who’s worse.
When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was torn. The very thing that divided the priests from the people no longer existed. There are no insiders in the kingdom of God, nobody gets special access, or attention or favours when it comes to God. No special upgrades, no velvet rope to keep the hoi polloi from the VIPs. It is for all of us. But we can only really claim our status as equal citizens of God’s kingdom when we stop looking down on others, or thinking that others are better than us.
‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’