No matter how depraved we are, we can still name somebody more depraved than us, somebody we can look down on. We crave some excellence in ourselves that raises us above others. This superiority is then emphasized. If we have powerful muscles, this is what we assert, and we scorn weaker and smaller people. The person with the quick mind will make fun of the dull, muscular ox. If someone is musically talented, he or she will tend to regard unmusical people as pitiably less than himself or herself. When we feel inferior to anybody in some point, we quickly discover some other point in which we are clearly superior. Although so and so many be more well-liked than we are, we make more money. Although they have more splendid children, they can’t get about as much as we do. Theoretical communism, perfect equality, will never work, for we would be utterly miserable if we could not find somebody less than ourselves, somebody to look down on, somebody to make us more pleased with ourselves.
The Pharisees acted similarly with the tithe. The Law of God required a tenth of one’s produce or income. Many farmers and traders did not give the required tenth. To point out this sin, the Pharisees had the habit of giving not only a tenth of their own produce and income but also a tenth of what they bought. When they bought flour or sheep, for example, the Pharisees knew they were likely buying untithed goods. To have no part in this robbing of the Lord, the Pharisees tithed such purchases also. This cost them a lot. We know that one’s money is usually the last thing to come under control of the love of Christ. So you see, these Pharisees did have a lot to show for themselves.
We must be careful not to despise the Pharisees. They lived clean, decent, useful lives. They were exhibited a keen responsibility for the welfare of their people. They did their utmost to fulfill the Law of God. Before we despise them, we should compare their exemplary lives with our own. How many of us are ready to give 10 percent twice to the Lord? Nor may we assert our superiority by saying that they had good works that didn’t count and we have faith, faith counts. We can rightly divide the Law from the Gospel; we can distinguish correctly between justification and sanctification; and we can point out everybody else’s errors.
No, my friends, we may not condemn that Pharisee. We must learn to recognize and condemn this Pharisee. This Pharisee is the hardest one of all to recognize, for a Pharisee is always looking at other people or, rather, looking down on other people and seeing them as less than himself. Having sized them up as less than himself, the Pharisee measures himself according to other people and finds himself bigger and better than they.
(This is an edited excerpt from a Sermon by Norman Nagel)