Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Luke 18:9-14 -- On Praying for the Spotlight

"And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
Luke 18:9-14

This is an interesting parable, comparing two different prayers, and two different people.  And I think that we sometimes fall into this trap, not just with commandments, but with compassion.  We like to compare ourselves to others when it makes us look good.  We want people to see us being the good guys and other people being the bad guys.  And if we get more points on the board in terms of fasting and tithing, and acceptance, and diversity, etc, then we have our proof, right?

The story, though, challenges how we measure ourselves.  It reminds me of the story of the Rameumptom from the Book of Mormon (Alma 31:12-23).  In that story, each person would climb up to pray saying, in part, "thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee" (Alma 31:17).  As we are counting up our good deeds, we need to remember that God *isn't* counting.  He doesn't have an eternal leaderboard up there, and we aren't competing for limited tickets to heaven.  It is about who we are, who we are becoming, and to a large extent, how we learn to love and treat others, including those we see as enemies.

The scary part of both this parable and the story of the Rameumptom is that in both cases, the people honestly thought they were doing what God wanted, and that they were, in fact, better than the people around them.  How easy it is to trick ourselves into that kind of thinking. We are doing good things, and it seems logical to take it from there. We think that because we make some good choices and it makes our lives better, that we are inherently better than people who have not made the same choices.  And yet, when we think that way, we are overwhelmingly biased in those judgments because we look only at the choices that *we* have made to do good, and not at all choices, or at each person as a whole.  Those aren't easy things to do, given.  Perhaps only God has all the information needed to make such an unbiased judgment.  And yet we persist in the faulty comparisons, in thinking that we are better than others, and in living and praying as though for the spotlight.  We talk and post about how good we are compared to others, how others have wronged us, and we unfortunately often pray that way too.  If we step back and look at ourselves, we often see that our real messages, even to God, are basically "Look at me, and how cool I am!"

I'm not saying we aren't cool, by the way.  We totally are. :)  Reinforcing some righteous behavior isn't a bad thing in itself.  I'm only saying that the publican got it right.  No matter how cool we are, and what success we've had, changing and repenting and triumphing over temptation... no matter what amazing choices and goodness and love we are spreading, we still have a long way to go, just like anyone else.  Perhaps we all share a need to work on the areas of compassion and love toward those who do not necessarily agree with us.  Instead of worrying about who will claim the righteousness prize, or get those tickets to heaven, maybe we should stop and focus on who we are becoming, and whether we're prepared for a similar judgment.  It's the mote-beam thing, the seek first to obtain my word thing, the oxygen mask thing.  Sometimes we need to make sure we're breathing okay before we help others, so that we don't mess up both lives.

My favorite thing about the publican is that his prayer was between him and God, not done for the spotlight.  He recognized his need for God's help and his mercy.  He was looking at his own faults rather than those of other people.  Perhaps today we can follow his example.  I think that we, and the world, would benefit.

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