How to become the tax collector

In Sunday’s sermon, I offered a (satirical) 3-step process for how to become a Pharisee based on Luke 18.9-14. Given that the Pharisee is the negative example in Jesus’ parable, you might be wondering: how can I become more like the positive example of the tax collector? In a (somewhat) more serious spirit from Sunday’s message, here are another three simple steps.


1. Eschew the fundamental attribution error.

Pride finds traction in the human soul with comparisons. Going back to Cain and Abel (not coincidentally, the Old Testament lesson from Sunday), humans have an innate, odious impulse to compare themselves to one another. I observe it daily among my children; I confront it daily in myself.

What, then, should you do when you find yourself in “comparison mode”? Eschew the “fundamental attribution error.” What is that, you ask? This is our human tendency to assume the worst about someone else’s behavior, underestimating the role of circumstances, and to put the best construction on our own behavior.

Or, as I put it in the sermon: that guy is speeding down the highway because he’s a bad person, whereas I am just important and busy. So try instead putting the best construction on others’ actions, and don’t be so quick to let yourself off the hook.

 

2. Don’t mistake false modesty for genuine humility.

The textbook mistake when you are convicted about your pride is to trade it for false modesty. This “aw, shucks” kind of attitude is really not much better than out-and-out self-righteousness.

In a classic passage in The Screwtape Letters, the elder demon counsels his young nephew Wormood about humility:

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character…The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.

Genuine humility is not something that we drum-up; it is a gift of the Spirit as we become more aware of our utter and exclusive dependence on God’s grace. So a good prayer for true humility is this one from Ephesians: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3.18-19).

 

3. Keep the definite article.

And the other necessary prayer is that of the tax collector himself: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” At least, this is how most translations render it. In fact, what the tax collector literally prays is, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ). This is the prayer of St. Paul, who professes to be the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1).

You might bristle at the notion that you are the chief of sinners. Isn’t that a little unfair, and a lot presumptuous? But as Richard John Neuhaus puts it, “When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all.”


Let’s make sure we get one thing straight, though. The tax collector in no way merits grace by means of his humility. There’s no virtue in being a tax collector as such. He is saved, as we are saved, not by humility but by Christ through faith. So let’s each own the fact that we’re Pharisees at heart with tax collector tendencies, and pray for a further renovation by the Holy Spirit: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51).

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