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 men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers… Luke ch18 vv9-11
The Pharisee in this story has fallen into a trap that beckons many religious folk. He knows he keeps the rules pretty well; certainly he doesn’t commit the more flagrant offences against the Ten Commandments – theft, murder, adultery, lying. This leads him to think that he is ‘not like other men’ – thieves, murderers, adulterers, liars. It’s not just that he behaves differently; it’s that he is different, existentially different, from other men. The real source of such a sense of being different may often be racial or religious, and in the case of this first century Jew was probably both. But whatever its source it usually brings with it a feeling that you have to stay different, by obeying the rules that go along with your sense of being different. It can work the other way too: by learning to be obedient to the rules, you can come to feel an existential superiority over other people. Of course it doesn’t need to be expressed, and usually isn’t expressed, with quite such brutal frankness as the story attributes to this Pharisee, obviously for the sake of making the point.
Such an attitude of superiority, however well hidden, causes real difficulties for those who hold it. In the first place, it makes it very hard for the rule-keeper to break the rules, whatever the circumstances, because to do so would be to become a different person, not just the same person behaving differently in different circumstances. There are many occasions – and we won’t always agree about what they are – when it might be appropriate for a person to break one of the cardinal rules. But the existentially superior rule keeper can’t recognise any of them, because if he did he would cease to recognise himself. This leads to his second difficulty: if, acting under some wild impulse that he can’t control, he does break one of the cardinal rules and thus ceases to recognise himself, he may not then be able to see any reason why, now that he is not the man he was, he should not systematically break every rule in the book. After all, he has now become like other men, a Sinner; that’s his new existential identity. What he may not be able to see is what the Jesus teaching often hints at: occasional rule-breakers are not in fact comprehensive, principled rule-breakers: they are just ordinary people, doing their best to find a way through the complexities of human desires, human relationships and social pressures.
The rule-keeper may be very aware of social pressures, but he’s often a good deal less alert to human desires and relationships. The purpose of social rules is to try to keep human desires in check so that they don’t cause social chaos; if the desires weren’t there, there wouldn’t be any need for the rules. This all gets obscured for the principled rule-keeper: for him, the rules aren’t just social tools that lack any higher status; they are rather God-given orders that need no social utility to justify them. Seeing the rules in that light makes it possible for the principled rule-keeper to overlook the fact that he, like ‘other men’, has lots of desires that need rules to keep them in check; he can pretend to himself that he is ‘pure’ not merely in his actions but in his desires. That is presumably Jesus’s point in saying that when a man looks lustfully at a woman – and which of us has not? – has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (I apologise for the sexism inherent in the language I’m using here; ancient Thinkers, Jesus included, were men who rarely showed much interest in or insight into the crucial differences between women and men.) Paradoxically therefore this rule-keeper who can’t break rules for fear of no longer recognising himself in fact has very limited insight into who he is: he thinks he’s really pure in heart, and therefore not at all like other men.
Now if there’s a guaranteed way of damaging your relationships with other people, it is to think that those other people are existentially inferior to you, and have impure desires you don’t have, as is proved by their willingness, even if only occasionally, to break those God-given rules. This may be obscured. Rule-keepers can be really very nice people; after all, the rules they are keeping with such religious zeal were originally intended to keep society running smoothly, so of course such people are unlikely to upset their neighbours. But being really very nice and not troubling your neighbours is not a definition of having good, rich human relationships characterised by love. That requires that people meet as existential equals and take an interest in the differences between them. Thinking you are existentially superior gets in the way of accepting equality; being unaware of your own motivations gets in the way of a closeness that investigates and relishes differences. Those who think of others as does the Pharisee in the story make it practically impossible for themselves to have close, respectful human relationships. And since, as Jesus rightly implies, it is such relationships that lead to happiness, they are stuck in a state of unhappiness.
Before asking what may to be done to help them, it’s worth saying that we all need to be very careful not to let children in our care grow up with a sense of existential superiority over their peers, backed up with strict rule-keeping. They need to be brought up to know they are ordinary kids who may sometimes break the rules and perhaps as a result of doing so develop a greater capacity for loving relationships and therefore real happiness. To give a child any other sense of him- or her-self is to deserve the millstone treatment. Fine: but what about the adults that children that were not given a sense of being ordinary kids grow into? To what extent is it possible to save them? The gospels do not record any example of a thorough-going Pharisee being helped by Jesus to get off his pedestal, and Paul succeeds only by embracing a set of beliefs that seem unavailable to us. Maybe the best start is the wonderful line that John attributes to Jesus: the truth will make you free. And the truth is that not one of us is existentially different from the rest of us, whoever they are and whatever they do.