We spend so much time and thought trying to impress others. To impress them with our clothes, with our good taste, with our intelligence or wittiness, with good looks, whatever. We love to have some sense of controlling our image. This is why people pay extra for good clothes, or seek out new fashions, or have teeth whitening, or know all about the latest trends. What would impress God? ‘The Lord is no respecter of personages’ we read today from Ecclesiasticus (35.12-14, 16-19). God treats all people equally because he sees through them all and looks into the heart. How refreshing. And yet, at the same time a little frightening. It is refreshing because we do not have to make a good impression to God. It would be a waste of time! So what would impress God? A loving heart, surely, kindness and compassion to others, and faith springing up to help us meet the challenges and difficulties of everyday life.
The gospel reading (Luke 18.9-14) drives the message home. The parable that Jesus tells is itself interesting. To me it sounds only partly like a parable, because Jesus seems to be drawing on something he has seen and heard himself – just like the occasion he was near the Temple treasury and saw the widow putting in her mite (Mark 12.43). This time he hears the bombastic prayer of the Pharisee, compared with the humble prayer of the tax collector who worked with the Roman authorities.
The Pharisee’s prayer was concerned with making a good impression. Perhaps we should put in a good word for the man. Perhaps all those things he said about himself were true! He believed that his good standing with God was something that he had earned through his good behaviour. And yet, there is something sad about having to prove yourself in that way. It seems to me that the Pharisee typifies something that can be found in nearly all of us. What I mean is this: whenever people are at their most obnoxious in terms of pride, or hubris, or arrogance, it nearly always springs from insecurity. The insecurity may be so deeply hidden that the person is unaware of it. But the insecurity makes the person want to impress, impress, impress. It is a kind of drivenness. Which of us could say that we have never been there? Part of the problem here is that such people cannot find peace until they let go of the need to prove themselves.
What is the difference between those who believe in God and those who do not? Is one side spiritual, the other unspiritual? Is one side good, the other bad? Is one side pure, the other unclean? No. the difference is that those who know God know the one who heals, the one who helps, the one who forgives, the one who encourages, and shows us how he does through the ministry of Jesus Christ.