So the other day I was teaching my youth the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. It’s a very simple parable and while it’s lesson is clear, I find it often very hard to follow. The parable goes like this:
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.”
– Luke 18:9-14
The lesson seems clear. We do not need to get caught up in self praise or fill our heads up with the idea that our sins are somehow any less serious than someone else’s. From experience I know that the sin a man most hates is usually the one he doesn’t struggle with. We just naturally try to justify ourselves while condemning others instead of actually seeking true repentance and righteousness. The lesson seemed to be well taken, but then something interesting happened.
Two of my youth came up to me afterwards and told me that Jennifer (name changed for the sake of privacy) was texting during the lesson and that I should call her out and not let her use her phone next time. I have let my youth use their smart phones during my lessons with the understanding that they were using a Bible app to follow along. I knew good and well that someone would eventually abuse this privilege, but I allowed it. I told the concerned youth that since it was a distraction to them, I would make a new rule starting next week that we’ll just use hard copy Bibles from now on. They were not very pleased with my decision. They wanted to know why I had to punish everyone (as if having to read from a book instead of a screen was punishment) just because one person broke the rules.
These two youth were not really concerned with the problem being addressed as much as they were desiring for the perpetrator to be punished. This part of human nature always frustrates me. We don’t just want things fixed, we also want a bad guy to punish or else we don’t feel like we got closure. What really got me agitated though was when one of the youth uttered the following phrase “We’re just concerned about Jennifer because she REALLY needs Jesus. She’s REALLY messed up!”
I tried very much not to show that I was more than a little bothered by this choice of words. I explained to the two youth that everybody REALLY needs Jesus and that everybody is REALLY messed up. We don’t get to play the “who’s the worst sinner” game when we know good and well that we are in desperate need of a savior. I probably would have been less bothered by this if I had just not taught a lesson on this very concept.
Now I’m not going to pretend I’m perfect at this. I can be very judgmental at times and I too tend to put sins on a hierarchy of seriousness. The truth of the matter though is that all sins are serious and no one is in a position to be tearing others down when they are ignoring the sin in their own hearts. I am reminded of the words of St. Chrysotom who famously said:
“The church is a hospital, not a courtroom”
– St. John Chrysostom