When I was younger, I thought of the Pharisees as them, and I condemned them for their vanity and pride. Then I realized that Jesus had held up the behavior of the Pharisees as an example. So now when I read about the Pharisees I am no longer tempted to point a finger of condemnation. Instead, I just worry that I too could stumble into one of the same prideful traps.
Here in this parable Jesus explains how even prayer can be warped into sin.
Luke 18:9-14 (Today’s New International Version)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘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.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What had this Pharisee done? Had he had only looked upon himself as he thought others did? As Adam Smith demonstrates in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, when we see ourselves as others see us, we only begin to form a conscience.
Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. The idea of them could never interest him so much as to call upon his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy, nor that of his sorrow any new sorrow, though the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them, and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other; his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply, and often call upon his most attentive consideration. (from here)
So it is that we learn from others which acts deserve approbation and which deserve condemnation. Yet should a man leave off the development of his conscience at this point, his conscience will still be of little use. We all know how easy it is to fool another. When we can do that which is evil when no one is watching, why should the approbations and condemnations of others overly concern us? When no man can see into the secret recesses of another’s mind, who is there to condemn self-centered pride?
Why does a man or a woman seek a clear conscience? Is it because we have faith in the All-Seeing Spectator — the Deity who knows our every thought and deed? What does it mean to believe in the Holy One, Almighty God? How profound is the change in a soul when that soul knows the love of God?
Psalm 131 (Today’s New International Version)
A song of ascents. Of David.
My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed myself
and quieted my ambitions.
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.