February 4, 2009
The Face-Planting Pharisee
by Katherine Britton, Crosswalk.com News & Culture Editor
“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'”
Like many young girls, I idolized those lithe gymnasts who swung from parallel bars and performed mat routines to music. I practiced handstands in the yard and religiously worked to hold up my weight on the gymnastic rings on the family swingset. On the rings, I could execute a somersault, flip upside down and point my toes skyward, or hoist myself into the air with my arms straight as sticks to hold me up.
All of my acrobatic attempts ended well – mostly because of my timidity – except for one.
You see, my constant efforts to impress my houseguests today are nothing new. My methods were just a little different when I was 12 years old. Yes, that means I wanted to showcase my ability on the rings when we happened to be entertaining guests outside. And that desire, of course, produced the genius idea to combine my gymnastic tricks in a way I’d never tried before. I decided to hoist myself upright on the rings and try to dive into a forward somersault.
Can you guess where this is going?
My momentum swung me forward and around faster than I had anticipated. Next thing I knew, I was struggling up to a collective gasp, and my parents were rushing towards me. My brilliant plan hadn’t worked out so well, and I had swung face-first into the pebbly dirt below the swingset. Looking back, I stood up relatively unscathed; that kind of landing could have broken my neck.
I spent the next week trying to veil my face with my hair and generally avoiding people when possible. My face-plant graced my visage with abrasions covering half my cheek, parts of my forehead, my chin, and – most regrettably – right under my nose, where the skin had split from the impact. And while that cut above my lip healed, I couldn’t even smile because the muscles tugged at sensitive areas. Believe me, keeping a sense of humor when you can’t smile is a Herculean task. As a 12-year-old trying to become a graceful young lady, I couldn’t have imagined a more horrible thing to happen, though I only had to deal with the rudely curious stares until cuts healed a week or so later.
It’s a classic pride-before-the-fall story, is it? Now that my cuts are healed and the scars have faded, I can and do laugh at myself for that display of over-confidence, and thank God that the punishment for my pride was only temporary. Yet the experience of the scarred face reminds me of the ugliness of overconfidence, especially in my spiritual journey.
I identify with the Pharisee in the synagogue frequently, who walked in “confident of [his] own righteousness” (Luke 18:9) and began to pray. Did he realize how much his prayer contributed to his own downfall, when he bragged to God how good he was? His permanent fall was only a breath away, but he proceeded to display what he perceived as good character. I wonder how many of Jesus’ listeners recognized themselves in the Pharisee, and how many recognized the consequences of their attitudes only after it was too late? My pride wrote itself on my face – but it’s far dangerous when it’s only written on our hearts.
Intersecting Faith & Life: If you consider the tax collector’s actions later in the parable, you realize that boldness looks different from pride. Knowing that he was unworthy, knowing that he was a sinner, he nonetheless came before God to ask mercy. His confidence came from his humility -- in knowing who he was, but knowing that his God was greater still. It’s another paradox of faith: we have confidence because its source lies outside of us. Ask yourself this week if your relationship with the Father looks more like the Pharisee’s or the tax collector’s. Let’s get rid of pride and replace it with the repentant heart of a sinner.