Everyday Pharisees

We like to point fingers at the ruling caste of Jesus’ day, but have we stopped to consider how like them we are?

My friend Linda tells the story of when she was a greeter at church one hot Sunday morning: A man walks in with disheveled hair, sweat stains blotching his long-sleeved white shirt, half tucked in. The other half waves loosely like a flag in the wind. She is put off. Inwardly, she begins to recoil in disgust. And yet, she smiles and welcomes him. He flashes a smile revealing his desperate need for dental work. The Holy Spirit nudges Linda. “Go talk to him.” Linda obeys and learns he rode his bicycle 12 miles one way just to get to church.

“I bet I wouldn’t pay John the Baptist no mind if we crossed paths.”

“Here I was judging him based on his appearance,” she says, “And he shows more commitment to be in church than most people I know. You know what else I thought? I bet I wouldn’t pay John the Baptist no mind if we crossed paths.”

“Based on his appearance?” I ask.

“Based on his appearance,” she confirms. “God really used this man to humble me.”

I commiserate with Linda. We all have our prejudices and misjudgments, our mistaken notions of superiority. We all, at one time or another, are the Pharisee in the parable, who utter our own versions of “God, I thank You that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:9-14).

What if we turned our notions all around and upside down to match the priorities of God’s kingdom? What if we became the pupils of those we initially, and quite wrongly, believed to be beneath us? For example, instead of imitating the rich man who—day in and day out, year after year—held contempt for Lazarus, the poor man sitting at his gate, what if we sat down with our Lazaruses to learn from them (Luke 16:19-31)? After all, Jesus tells us, “Many who are first will be last; and the last, first” (Matt. 19:30).

There’s a variety of reasons why we feel superior to others. Much of it has to do with blindness to our own sins and flaws. It’s easier and comforting to spot what is wrong in others; it is much harder and scarier to see it in ourselves. If we do see our own shortcomings, we downplay them. This leads to pride and an unteachable spirit. As Jesus says, we busy ourselves trying to remove a sliver from the eye of another when there is a log in our own (Matt. 7:1-5).


But the closer we come to Christ, the more we see ourselves for who we really are: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This self-knowledge, a gift from God, produces in us humility, not shame. It curbs not only the tendency to think more highly of ourselves then we ought but also any inclincation to think of ourselves and others as less than God does (Rom. 12:3).

Perhaps we feel superior because we are wealthier or higher up the corporate ladder than others and believe the devilish lie that all hardworking, God-honoring folks become wealthy. Maybe we confuse the corporate ladder for Jacob’s ladder. Or maybe, while we believe we are godlier because we possess virtues they do not, we fail to notice they also have virtues we do not. To root out this prideful tendency of believing we have nothing to learn from those we initially consider beneath us, it’s helpful to catch ourselves and rehearse truth the moment we begin to feel smug. To start, we could remind ourselves of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the rich man and Lazarus, and logs versus slivers in an eye.

Luke 2:52 says Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, but have we done the same? Are we willing to humble ourselves like our sinless Savior, who willingly put Himself in a position to learn from His imperfect parents and others? What would it look like to learn from those flung to the bottom rung of society, the church, or our “good” opinion?

The answer is simple but can be profoundly difficult: We have to be intentional. We need to make room for them at our tables, in our organizations, in our daily lives. The kind of fellowship where we embrace each other as equals has a way of collapsing the imagined distances between our backgrounds and circumstances. As we position ourselves to learn from those we underappreciate, we often find we are the ones with weaker faith and trust in God. And it is likely we are the ones who have much to learn from them. Once we begin practicing this posture, we will find God sends many messengers of grace our way—sweat stains and all. We simply need eyes to see.


Illustration by Marco Ventura

Related Topics:  Beatitudes

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9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'

13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

19 Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.

20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores,

21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.

22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.

23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.

24 And he cried out and said, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.'

25 But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.

26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.'

27 And he said, `Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house--

28 for I have five brothers--in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

29 But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.'

30 But he said, `No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!'

31 But he said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'"

30 But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.

1 Do not judge so that you will not be judged.

2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.

3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

4 Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye?

5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

3 For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

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