Are You Worth It?
Pride is such a sticky trap that I for one am always struggling with, or rather the pride-humility polarity that is so hard to balance.
We all know that being overly impressed with ourselves like the Pharisee in our story is not the way to go. But a humility that becomes twisted with self-hatred, a self-esteem crushed to the point that we believe we are worthless, does nothing to please God either.
Today we must look at our scriptures and ask the question: what is our true worthiness?
We begin with the two characters in our gospel story, the Pharisee and the tax collector. Their respective worths are even labeled by how they are named—the Pharisee is capitalized in the text and the tax collector is lower case. You can see the capitalized Pharisee and lower-case tax collector in the temple in your mind’s eye: the one standing tall and proud, the other diminished and sinking low in his grief and shame.
But consider on what the Pharisee builds his self-worth. First, it is by comparing himself to others.
The first words out of his mouth are, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
He places himself in a hierarchy against other people and gives thanks that he ranks higher by virtue of not having committed these notorious sins.
And then he values himself for the deeds he has done. He proclaims before God and all the other people in the temple praying, “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The Pharisee can point to a list of the sins he is not guilty of and the good works he has accomplished and count himself on solid ground before God.
Except it is not solid ground at all.
The Pharisee’s means of judging his own worthiness before God are very fragile and easily shattered.
All it would take would be one impulsive moment, one major sin like stealing or adultery, and the entire standing he has built in his mind for how he appears to God would come crashing down.
And what about if he misses a fast day or gets laid off and can’t make his tithe for a month?
Suddenly his entire self-image and his justification before God are revealed as the shaky and shifting sand that they are.
Nor does his comparing himself to others hold up when examined. In his system, he is only worthy before God based on the actions of the people around him.
What if the people around him change?
What if he is suddenly around a bunch of people who are even more virtuous than he is?
Then he can no longer claim worthiness by being better than those around him. And placing himself in a hierarchy of virtue based on the people around him leaves him no way to stand before God on his own two feet.
The way the Pharisee has constructed his system of moral justification, if he were all alone and could not compare himself to others, he would not be able to articulate his worthiness before God.
He is morally invisible unless he can look down on others.
Consider what this man’s prayer reveals about him. Underneath his pride, this is a frightened and insecure man.
He’s like the junior employee in the office, constantly cozying up to the boss and providing a running list of accomplishments to woo favor, trying to use eagerness and a façade of confidence to cover up fear of being fired.
Once I was riding in a car with two priests on the way to a graveside service for a funeral. They were both high-ranking priests in the diocese with impressive titles and big flagship churches.
One of the priests spent the entire car ride talking about all the important people he knew and had ministered to, all the rich and famous people he knew and had rubbed shoulders with over the years. He claimed to have met at least two presiding bishops and, I am not making this up, to have attended a tea party with the Prince of Wales.
The second priest never said a word.
By the end of the car ride, the priest who hadn’t spoken at all had made by far a more eloquent statement about his groundedness and security than the one who had bragged the entire time.
That car ride taught me an important lesson. The more you have to insist that something is true about yourself—that you are important, that you are ethical, that you are virtuous—the less you actually believe it yourself.
So this Pharisee reveals with his protestations of righteousness that deep in his heart of hearts, he fears that the opposite is true and that he must work and strive and strain to hide his true self from God and man.
How often do we fall into this trap ourselves?
We feel unworthy and it is a painful feeling, and so we try to cover it up by insisting that we are super-worthy, better than so many people ourselves. We ricochet back and forth against the poles of pride and worthlessness, our identity before God determined by our fragile egos.
It’s no way to live.
Jesus calls the tax collector in our story today justified. How does he handle his worth before God?
He begins with honesty. He comes before God and admits he is a sinner and he needs help.
And then that’s it. He’s done.
No long list of accomplishments adding up his righteousness. No looking around and comparing himself to other people to create a hierarchy of virtue. Rather than focused on himself, he is focused on God. He offers himself and his need to God and turns himself over to God with a reckless and unself-conscious trust.
The way out of the trap of measuring our worthiness, of bouncing from self-aggrandizement to self-hatred and back, is to quit measuring our own worthiness ourselves altogether.
Agonizing over how we will ever measure up to everything we know we should do and be is placing all our focus ourselves. Our efforts to earn or force virtue and selflessness ironically make us more self-centered than ever.
Rather we must turn our gaze away from ourselves and place it where it belongs: on God.
This entire time we have been trying to evaluate ourselves and finding it only a path to more delusion and depression, when God not only already has the answer but has spent all God’s time for centuries trying to communicate it to us.
Listen to our lesson from the Book of Joel this morning to know how God estimates our worthiness:
“O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the LORD your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the LORD your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
God finds us infinitely precious and worthy and redeemable. God treasures us, both in our mistakes and in our potential. God casts out shame and brings on us the rain of vindication and healing.
When we see ourselves as God sees us, we see ourselves as we truly are—both sinners and saints, worthy of love and worthy of being challenged to grow in faith and holiness.
We must let go of the compulsion to make ourselves better than others and make ourselves worthy before God, truly futile tasks that place us on a joyless treadmill of propping up our constantly wavering self-image that is worn a little thinner with every moral failure.
Instead we turn our eyes away from ourselves and toward God and God’s estimation of our worthiness. God finds us so valuable that God scatters sparkling promises of life and abundance and joy all over the scriptures like jewels waiting for us to pick them up and adorn our life of faith.
God’s grace pours out upon us like the gentle, steady autumn rain that cleanses us of both pride and self-hatred until we stand renewed and blessed, ready to have the holy visions and dreams that are our inheritance.