“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ — Luke 18:9-14
It’s an often-told parable, that of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the temple, each praying. The Pharisee reminded God of how righteous he was, tithing properly and not being a sinner like the people around him, both in the temple and in the streets. Of course, he mentioned the tax-collector, a sinful collaborator who worked for the Romans, considered the lowest of the low among Jews. In his own eyes, the Pharisee was worthy of all the blessings God could bestow on him, and he didn’t mind letting God know that he was aware of it. The tax-collector, on the other hand, simply confessed to being a sinner and asked for mercy. It was a simple, humble statement of remorse, one at which the Pharisee would undoubtedly laugh.
I’ve written about this parable several times, but reading it this time, part of the first sentence caught my eye: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He wasn’t just telling a story to teach the disciples. He had a crowd around him, a mixed bag of ordinary people, Pharisees, ultra-righteous and out-and-out sinners alike. It was a lesson for all. He was holding up a mirror to an entire crowd, telling them to look at themselves and see their authentic images, not just a reflection.
Mirrors can be convenient when we want to see how our hair looks, makeup applied correctly, don’t have a seed stuck between our front teeth, or our tie is straight. A mirror reflects what is placed in front of it. Of course there are the trick mirrors at carnivals and fairs, creating significant distortions and making us laugh at the images they produce. There are fancy dome-like mirrors in elegant gold frames that see fish-eye reflections of glittering chandeliers, rich tapestries, marble floors, and tiny purse-sized mirrors to check lipstick or face makeup quickly. All these mirrors still only reflect what is before them. None of them see beyond the surface, down to the root of what is hidden by that very surface.
If a mirror were more like an x-ray, it could see beneath the skin to identify breaks or imperfections in bones and organs. If the mirror were like a CAT scan or ultrasound, it could show problems in organs, blood vessels, and softer tissues. It could show tumors, benign and cancerous, but can’t always differentiate which is which without a biopsy or surgery.
No mirror can show our soul and what is in our heart of hearts. A lot of what is there comes out in how we think, act, or talk. In this vein, the Pharisee would come out as someone who was vain and so sure of his status and appearance in the public arena that he didn’t mind reminding God of it. Some would call it out-and-out entitlement. Others might consider it narcissism and egotism.
God gave us inner mirrors to look at ourselves. If we looked sincerely and honestly, we could see flaws that need to be corrected. We need to develop discretion to judge what is right and good and what needs changing in what we think, see, and believe. Seeing things as they actually are is necessary to keep our inner and outer images in line with what God would expect of us.
Am I a disciple? Pharisee or tax-collector? Am I pride-full or humble and trying to be better? Am I trying to show Jesus’s teachings and God’s love in my appearance, actions, and words? We’ve all seen what hubris and egotism can do.
I can polish the mirrors in my house to make them shine and reflect more light. I can’t add anything to the cleanser to show me what I look like inside. I have to remember to check my interior looking glass more frequently so that God will be pleased with me.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, Baroque and Renaissance music lover, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.