Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
Key verse: (14) “… for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Reflection: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” That’s how Luke frames Jesus’ parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. It is a parable told to a very particular group of people. It is not intended for tax collectors, to convince them of their sin. It is intended for those who “trust in themselves that are right and regard others with contempt.”
This parable has something important to teach us in our current cultural context. Ours is a society defined by contempt. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defines contempt as, “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” It seems that’s where we are in our society. In his book, Love Your Enemies, (Broadside Books, 2019,) public policy scholar Arthur Brooks describes our current climate this way, “Divisive politicians. Screaming heads on television. Angry campus activists. Twitter trolls. Today in America, there is an ‘outrage industrial complex’ that prospers by setting American against American, creating a ‘culture of contempt’ — the habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect, but as worthless and defective.” A 2018 study by Hetherington & Weiler ANES data reported that over the past twenty years, the percentage of political partisans who view the opposing party with contempt has risen from less than 20% to 50%.
After sharing those statistics at a lecture at FPC-Charlotte last year, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt challenged us to consider three questions: What might happen if we stop seeing ourselves as good and those we disagree with as bad? How could we acknowledge our common humanity and our shared fate in ways that define us more broadly because of our differences? Are we willing to consider, instead, living from a place of moral humility? In the parable Jesus says it is the tax collector, the one who viewed himself from a place of moral humility who went home justified with God, not the Pharisee. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Holding another in contempt jeopardizes not only our relationships with each other, it jeopardizes our relationship with God.
How do we move away from regarding those with whom we disagree with contempt? Brooks suggests three ways. First, don’t disagree less, but disagree better. Don’t buy into the rhetoric of those who profit from the culture of contempt. He writes, “As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful.” Secondly, he encourages us to not treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This is not just altruistic, it’s an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible — no one has ever been hated into agreement. Finally, he encourages us to see contempt as an opportunity, not a threat. He writes, “If you are treated with contempt, it is a chance to change at least one heart — yours. Respond with warm-heartedness and good humor. You are guaranteed to be happier. If that also affects the contemptuous person (or bystanders), it will be to the good.”
Put another way, live from a place of moral humility. According to Jesus, doing so helps us be in right relationship with God. When we are right with God, we are much more likely to live in right relationship with one another.
Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Amen.
Author: Joe Clifford
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].