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 people—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 all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When I first read this passage from Luke, I was reminded of a quote by Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensker. The prominent Hasidic thinker wrote:
I am sure of my share in the World-to-Come. When I stand to plead before the bar of the Heavenly Tribunal, I will be asked, “Did you learn, as is duty bound?” To this I will answer, “No.” Again, I will be asked, “Did you pray, as is duty bound?” Again, my answer will be, “No.” The third question will be, “Did you do good, as is duty bound?” And for the third time, I will answer, “No.” Then judgment will be awarded in my favor, for I will have spoken the truth.
I have always loved this quote, because I can easily imagine myself defensively answering “No, but…” to each question. “I wasn’t always willing to listen and to learn, but I was already in the right, wasn’t I? “Maybe I didn’t do good all the time, but I was polite! I voted for so-and-so! I even recycled, for crying out loud!”
Similarly, when I feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit, often at the most inconvenient moments as She is wont to do, my instinct is to remind Her, like the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable, that I am not a robber, an evildoer, an adulterer, a bigot, an extremist, or a racist. In fact, I smile at cashiers and tell them to have a good day. I’ve never yelled at another person in traffic. When I call my mother, sometimes I don’t even ask her for anything. I read articles (or at least, parts of articles) by people with whom I disagree. When I see something that makes me angry on Facebook, I keep scrolling, usually. I am a good person.
All of that may be true, but I know that it is not the whole story. It is dishonest of me to respond to the Spirit’s nudges with anything other than humble reflection. Deep down I know that I, like the tax collector, must beat my chest and ask God for mercy, for compassion, and for grace. And though this introspection and repentance is difficult and uncomfortable, I am reassured by the promise of grace, which God offers as freely as conviction.