October 25, 1992

THE COMPARISON GAME

The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…”  But the tax collector … said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  (Luke 18:11,13)

I’d like to tell you about two very different women.  The first is married to her childhood sweetheart.  For the first few years of marriage, she worked in a bank, and then she and her husband started their family.  They were blessed with two girls and a boy.  Now she stays home with the children, and she’ll keep doing that until they’re all in school.  She listens to radio programs on how to be a good wife and mother.  She reads her Bible and prays every day.  The whole family attends church every Sunday.  In fact, she’s been a Sunday school teacher for the last several years.

The second woman followed a different road.  When she was fifteen she started using drugs.  She’s been so promiscuous, that she can hardly remember all the men she’s slept with.  She’s had two abortions, and she’s also given birth to a child.  She’s been getting welfare checks for quite a while.  When the welfare money wasn’t enough to buy food for her child and drugs for herself, she would get some extra cash by working as a prostitute.

Last Sunday these two women, the Sunday school teacher, and the prostitute went to church.  The teacher folded her hands and prayed about herself:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other women–sleeping around, using drugs, ripping off the welfare system, having abortions.  I feel so blessed.  I’m faithful to my husband;  I’m raising some wonderful kids; and I enjoy teaching and helping out at church.”

But the prostitute stayed out in the lobby–she was too ashamed even to go into the church sanctuary.  She broke down sobbing and cried, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I tell you that this prostitute, rather than the Sunday school teacher, went home justified before God.

Wait a minute!  Of the two women, I described, which would you rather have your daughter grow up to be?  Which would you rather have as a neighbor?  Which does our country and our society need more of?  The answer is obvious.  And that leaves us with the question:  What sort of God is it that would reject the Sunday school teacher and accept the prostitute?

Well, the God who does this is the God and Father of Jesus Christ.  By now you may realize that my story isn’t very original.  It’s just an adaptation of a story Jesus told, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The contrast between the women in my story is no greater than the contrast between the men in Jesus’ story.

Take the Pharisees.  They had solid families, they made a big contribution to society, and they taught others about the Bible.  Pharisees were the most religious, respectable, patriotic people around.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the scum of the earth.  They were traitors:  they collaborated with the occupying armies of Rome against their own countrymen.  They squeezed taxes out of their own people for the benefit of the Roman dictatorship.  They were cheats and extortionists:  they used their position to collect even more than what the Romans required, and then kept the extra money for themselves.  They became filthy rich, and I do mean filthy rich.

With that in mind, let’s look at what the Bible says in Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody 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 up and prayed about himself:  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Like most of Jesus’ stories, this one is intended to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.  A respectable Pharisee may remain under God’s wrath, while a detestable tax collector can be made right with God.  A Sunday school teacher can go to hell, while a prostitute may end up in heaven.  God rejects some of the very best people and yet he somehow accepts some of the very worst.  That’s the most offensive, and at the same time, the most glorious fact about the Christian faith.  You don’t really understand the Christian faith at all until you understand that astonishing fact.

We’ve been looking at a truly amazing story about God’s amazing grace, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  When the Pharisee in this story compares himself to others, he comes out looking pretty good.  And you can’t really say he’s wrong in his assessment.  Every word he says is true.  He really is better than other people.  He’s sure better than the tax collector.  And he doesn’t give himself the credit for all this, either.  He thanks God for making him different than other men.

The Pharisee is playing the comparison game.  That’s a game that many of us like to play.  In the comparison game, you don’t measure yourself by the standard of God’s perfection.  Instead, you measure yourself by how well you compare with other people.

Let me mention two reasons that so many of us enjoy playing the comparison game.  The first is that this game helps us feel better about ourselves.  I may not be perfect, but I’m still better than a lot of people.  And if I’m better than a lot of other people, I must be pretty decent.  That’s one reason that gossip is so delicious.  You measure how high you are by how low someone else is.  When you look at the failures of others, you feel that you’re not so bad, after all.

You may not be the smartest kid in the class, but compared to so-and-so, you’re a genius.  You may not be the ideal husband and father, but compared to Woody Allen, you’re a real family man.  You may have been imprisoned for embezzling, but compared to those low-life child molesters, you’re a pillar of society.  In the comparison game, you’re good enough as long as you’re better than others.

And that brings us to the second thing that makes the game so appealing:  you get to choose your own competition.  The game would be depressing if you were comparing yourself to Mother Teresa or the apostle John, and you certainly wouldn’t feel good comparing yourself to the absolute perfection of Jesus.  But the delightful thing about the comparison game is that you don’t have to do that.  You don’t have to look above you;  just look down below, and see all the people who are worse than you are.  Then you’ll feel like a winner.

When the Pharisee wants to know where he stands spiritually, he simply compares himself to every lowlife he can think of:  robbers, evildoers, adulterers, tax collectors, and so forth.  And surprise, surprise–he finds that compared to them, he’s a model of virtue.  He doesn’t trouble himself by thinking about people who are better than he is, and he certainly doesn’t compare himself to the absolute holiness of God.  He chooses his own competition, and so of course he comes out the winner.

So what’s wrong with playing the comparison game?  Because ultimately all these comparisons are irrelevant.  In the first place, we’ve all got to face the same judge.  And when you stand in the presence of the Lord God Almighty–as you ultimately must–comparisons with others become totally irrelevant.  Even if those comparisons are true in a certain sense, they are beside the point.

God doesn’t determine your status by checking whether you attended church more than other people you know.  He doesn’t ask whether there are people who are worse than you are.  That’s not how God measures you.  He measures you in terms of his perfect moral law.  And if you’ve broken that law, it’s not going to help you one bit to point out that others are even worse.  You’re a sinner, and that’s that.  God isn’t interested in whether you might be a little better than some other sinner.

Imagine a person on trial who says, “Judge, I admit to committing the murder.  But remember, I’m not a serial murderer like some people.  I’m not a rapist or a child molester.  And besides, think of how much worse I could have been.  I only killed one person.  What about the 5 billion people on this planet that I didn’t kill?  I should get some credit for that.”

Well, anyone stupid enough to try that defense is in big trouble.  When you’re standing before the judge, the question isn’t what somebody else did.  You are the one on trial.  And the focus isn’t on whether there might still be some crimes you haven’t committed.  The fact is, if you’re guilty of just one crime, that’s enough to condemn you.  The comparison game stops when you come into the presence of the judge.

A second reason that comparisons are ultimately irrelevant is that we’ve all got the same terminal disease.  The Bible says that sin always carries death with it (Romans 6:23), physical death and eternal death.  Sin is like a deadly virus that ultimately kills everyone it infects.  Unless you receive a cure, sin will kill you every time.  And then the question of whether one person might be a little more sinful than you are seems silly.  You’re both dead if you don’t find a cure.

Does someone who has AIDS tell himself that his condition isn’t very serious simply because he knows another AIDS victim whose condition is much worse?  Hardly.  AIDS is fatal for everyone who gets it.  The fact that people may be at different stages of the disease doesn’t change the final outcome.  In much the same way, the deadly effects of sin may be a bit more obvious in one person than another, but we’ve all been infected.  And apart from a miraculous cure, we’re all doomed.

There’s still another reason why comparisons are ultimately irrelevant to our situation.  There is an infinite gap between us and God that none of us can cross in our own power.  As long as we’re comparing ourselves to others, we may see some differences in our ability to do good, and those differences are very real.  But from the only perspective that really matters, God’s perspective, these differences are ultimately irrelevant.  “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  That’s what the Bible says.  You may get a little further than the next person in your being good, but you still fall far short of the glory of God.  Once that infinite distance is there, you really can’t do much to save yourself.  The question is not how much better you are than others, but how far you are from God.

Let’s say four people are out on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and they don’t have any life jackets.  The first person can’t swim at all.  If his boat sinks in the middle of the ocean, he’ll go down like a rock and drown.  The second person knows how to dog paddle a bit.  He’s certainly a better swimmer than the first.  But if the boat sinks in the middle of the ocean, he’s going to drown.  The third person is an excellent swimmer, a certified life guard.  He’ll be able to swim further than the first two.  But if his boat sinks in the middle of the ocean, he’s going to drown.  The fourth is a superb long distance swimmer, the kind that can swim the English Channel.  That’s all very impressive, but if his boat sinks in the middle of the ocean, he’s still going to drown.

I don’t care what kind of swimmer you are–if you’re boat sinks in the middle of the ocean, you’re going to drown.  The message of the Bible is that we are all in the same boat, and it is sinking fast.  In that situation, you don’t need to be a better swimmer than others.  You need a boat.  You can’t cross that great gap yourself;  you need Someone to come and rescue you.

We’ve got to stop playing the comparison game.  It may be fun to play, but the grand prize is hell.  As long as sin is still sin and God is still God, our silly comparisons won’t help us.  Some may do more righteous acts than others, but so what?  God tells us in Isaiah that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (64:6) when compared to the purity that God expects.  In Romans 3 God says, “There is no one righteous, not even one;  there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless;  there is no one who does good, not even one…  there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

There is no difference!  We are all guilty before the same judge;  we are all infected with the same terminal illness;  we are all in the same boat.  God has every right to condemn even the best of us to hell.  A Pharisee or a Sunday school teacher can be condemned.  And that’s bad news.

But even that bad news could turn out to be good news.  The fact that we’re all sinners means that God has the right to condemn even the best of us.  On the other hand, it also means that if he can save anyone at all, he can save even the worst of us.  If God can save somebody, he can save anybody.  Since we’ve all got the same basic problem, it’s no harder for him to save you or me than it is to save anyone else.

“There is no difference,” says Romans 3, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s cross to save sinners.  Sinners.  That means you, and it means me.  No one is more qualified or less qualified to be saved than anyone else.  We just need to put our faith in the mercy of God.  Even the worst sinner can have a new standing with God.  “This righteousness from God,” says the Bible, “comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

God’s grace and mercy are greater than all our sins, and in Christ, he has provided the way to be saved.  Jesus took the guilt of our sins upon himself and suffered the punishment in our place.  His resurrection power is so great that he can give eternal life even to dying sinners.  Before we can benefit from all this, however, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others and humble ourselves before God.

If you want to accept the good news of the gospel, you first need to accept the bad news:  that you are a sinner, that you are in the same predicament as every other man and woman on this planet, that you are utterly incapable of making yourself right with God.  Once you see that, the comparison game is over, and you’re in a position to believe the good news.

I’ve been talking quite a bit about the comparison game that the Pharisee was playing, but I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression.  You might think that serious religious people are the only ones who play this little game.  The Bible says that Jesus told this parable “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9).  That description obviously fits religious people who have a holier-than-thou attitude.  But it also fits some people who aren’t religious at all.  It applies to all who think they are good enough the way they are and look down on others.  To show you what I mean, let me just offer you another version of Jesus’ parable.

A man was raking leaves in his yard one Sunday when he saw his neighbor leaving for church.  The man thought to himself, “That guy may look saintly in his Sunday clothes, but he’s no better than I am.  Hey, I’m no goody-goody, but I’m good enough.  Okay, so I lie a little if it will help my sales figures, but I never said I was a saint.  And sure, if I find an attractive woman who’s willing, I go to bed with her.  But so what?  I’m just following my normal urges, after all.  Whatever it takes to make you happy, right?  At least I’m open and honest about it.  I’m still a lot better than those religious phonies who go around putting on airs.”

Meanwhile, the Christian neighbor arrived at church.  He had a hard time singing during the first song.  He was thinking, “Lord, last Thursday when my car had a flat tire, I swore and took your holy name in vain.  I know how terribly that offends you.  And just five minutes before we left for church, I argued with my wife and yelled at my kids.  Sometimes I wonder how I can even call myself a Christian.  God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Now, which of these two is the real hypocrite who looks down on the other?  Which one really takes his own sins seriously?  Religious people aren’t the only ones who like to play the comparison game.  Amazingly enough, it’s possible to be as wicked as a tax collector and still be as proud as a Pharisee.  Some people openly flaunt their wickedness, and then they’re proud of themselves for being so blatant about it.  God is not impressed.

In Jesus’ parable, the tax collector doesn’t strut around saying, “Boy, am I glad I’m not a hypocrite like that self-satisfied Pharisee!  Sure, I’m a sinner, but what’s the big deal?  Nobody’s perfect.  At least I’m open about it.  I’m sure that God–if he exists–will appreciate my honesty.”

No, the tax collector stands alone before a holy God, and cries out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  He’s not just frank about the fact that he’s a sinner.  He’s sorry about it, he realizes how horrible it is, and he seeks God’s mercy.  And this man went home justified.

Justified.  The word means “made right with God,” and it’s at the very heart of the Christian faith.  It’s a word that has brought hope and salvation to millions throughout the centuries.

Justified by faith.  That’s what Martin Luther experienced in his own life and then proclaimed to the world.  For years Luther was obsessed with earning a right standing with God.  He was an outstanding person compared to the people around him.  But no matter how good he became, he knew that he wasn’t good enough.  He was still tormented by the knowledge that he was a sinner in God’s sight, and that nothing he did could give him peace with God.  Then, by God’s grace, Luther discovered that he was justified by faith.  His standing with God depended on faith in Jesus Christ, not on his own works or church rituals. That discovery set Martin Luther free, and it also unleashed the great Reformation of the church which began 475 years ago this month, on October 31, 1517.

My friend, if you want to know what it means to be a genuine Christian, you need to understand the word “justified.”  That word is crucial if you want to be sure about your relationship with God.  If you’ve never met the God and Father of Jesus Christ, I want you to meet him now.  He’s not what you might expect.  You might think that heaven is reserved for good people, and hell–if there is such a place–is reserved for only the very worst people.  Not so.  Jesus says that the even very best person still is not good enough to escape death and hell and that the very worst person is still not bad enough to be disqualified from God’s mercy and salvation.

No matter who you are, there is just one way for you to be made right with God.  You need to be justified by faith.  You need to give up on your own achievements, you need to forget about how well or how poorly you compare with others, and you need to trust that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has done what you could never do.  He has satisfied the requirements of the just judge, he has provided a cure for sin that is 100% effective, and he has bridged that infinite gap between sinful people and a holy God.  So forget your pride, confess your sin, and put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  As you sense the depth of your own sin and the wonder of God’s love, make the tax collector’s prayer your own:  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Then you can be sure that you have been “justified before God.”

PRAYER

God, have mercy on us sinners.  As we bow before you, we realize how meaningless all our comparisons are, and how deadly are the games that we play.  We know, holy Father, that you had every right to abandon us in our sins, and we praise you that you chose instead to send your beloved Son to live among us and to open the way of salvation.

We praise you for the gospel of your mercy and grace and love.  Thank you that we can be justified, that we can be made right with you.  Look upon us in your mercy, give us a deep hatred for sin, a strong faith in Jesus, and a warm love for others and for you, great Father.  Shed that love abroad in our hearts by your Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.