Living Kingdom: You and me, modern day pharisees?

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The Pharisee and the tax collector

“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” (Luke 18:14).

Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic is reported to be one of the most unlikeable and unpleasant sports personalities in the world. He once threatened to break his teammate’s legs, he’s allegedly thrown a training kit box at his coach and he’s also headbutted one of his teammates during a training session. There’s plenty more where that came from too: the footballer’s career has been full of kicking, elbowing, grabbing, slapping, choking; and even more incidents where Ibrahimovic verbally abused teammates, staff, journalists and athletes in other sporting codes. 

It’s no wonder that sports publications like L’Équipe and The Sportster list Ibrahimovic as the most arrogant footballer, and indeed professional athlete still in competition. 

And yet, Ibrahimovic is adored by fans.  

They love his frequent use of third-person when referencing himself. When asked about Sweden’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 world cup, he said, “Only God knows who will go through.” The reporter responded, “It’s hard to ask him”. “You’re talking to him,” Ibrahimovic said.  

In amongst his frequent use of self-exaltation and passive-aggression towards others, Ibrahimovic has always silenced his critics on the field. More than 570 career goals (and counting) across stints with 11 clubs in the world’s top leagues, Ibrahimovic continues to defy his age while many of his peers have long retired. 

For a man who has shaped his identity around cockiness and arrogance, he’s lauded and praised as one of the greatest players of his generation simply because he backs himself and gets results. 

What about a person who hasn’t achieved anything of significance? What’s left when all you have is that person and their attitude? 

Enter the temple 

It only takes one sentence, and the guy is already unlikeable—there he is, a Pharisee, entering the temple with a tax collector to pray. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector,” he said (Luke 18:11). The searing heat of the Pharisee’s sass comes steaming off the page. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get,” he adds (verse 12). You can imagine a hypothetical crowd jumping up and giving a sarcastic applause. 

The Pharisee’s were respected. They were in an elevated position in society due to the knowledge they possessed about Jewish laws and traditions. This respect didn’t bring an ounce of humility, as the Bible often describes them as scrutineering and criticising others—with Jesus a frequent target. And Jesus didn’t mince His words about Pharisees either: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (Luke 11:42).

Reading Jesus’ rebuke, and indeed The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, can be quite comfortable when you restrict the scope of what He was saying to that context. But was Jesus’ parable just an attempt to call out the Pharisees’ hubris? Or is there more to it?  

We can laugh and agree; yes, the Pharisees were kind of annoying. Some of us might even come up with a few examples of modern-day Pharisees who we know, including people at work, church or even in our friendship circles. Dial back a little bit and the truth slams home: the parable isn’t for Pharisees, it’s for “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9). Was Jesus talking about you and me? 

In love with self 

The term “narcissism” stems from a Greek mythology story about a hunter, Narcissus, who saw his reflection in some water and immediately fell in love. He spent the rest of his days looking into the water until his death in that same spot. The mythological story alleges that following his death a narcissus flower—commonly known as the “ego flower”—grew where he died.  

These days, narcissism is used as a psychological term to describe a personality disorder. The term has often been used in conjunction with other extreme psychological disorders, like sociopathy and psychopathy. Psychology Today, however, defines narcissism as “a hunger for appreciation or admiration, a desire to be the centre of attention, and an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status”. Pathological narcissism is a diagnosed mental disorder in approximately one per cent of the global population, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t carry narcissistic traits. 

A 2013 TIME magazine article by Joel Stein is famously entitled “Millennials: the Me Me Me Generation”. In his piece, Stein alleges that millennials scored three times higher in narcissism than those aged 65 and older, attributing this to millennials being raised with elevated expectations of how they will be treated as well as the advent of social media where everyone can be a star. Indeed, a Pew Research paper in 2015 found around half of millennials agreed their generation is “self-absorbed”, “wasteful” and “greedy”. A more recent study—the largest one on narcissism to date—published in Psychology and Aging—countered that baby boomers also have “hypersensitive” traits and are just as narcissistic as millennials.  

Whether one blames the way we were all raised, or how social media is manipulating our behaviour, the definition of self-centredness makes it clear there is a void. There is a need for admiration, a need to receive attention. As much as one’s attitude can easily be attributed to a view of high self-worth, it becomes clear that it is often due to the complete opposite. The difference comes in how either confronts the reality of their insecurity. 

In Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the latter stood there, having likely heard the Pharisee’s sly remark. Rather than reacting or defending himself, he instead calls out to God. “God have mercy on me, a sinner,” he said (Luke 18:13). The Bible describes that out of shame he didn’t even look up to heaven. 

Christ’s lesson was very simple—“this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (verse 14). On one hand we have a man with status; one who expects reverence and respect. On the other, we have a man who in his position as a tax collector is hated by many. The tax collector was able to humble himself and surrender to God, and he subsequently received the promise of God’s blessing. As Jesus’ final point exemplifies, “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 14). The tax collector, however, needs only to read King Solomon’s comment, “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).  

There’ll come a time when Zlatan Ibrahimovic will retire and his claims that “I do not need a trophy to tell myself that I am the best” will become mere references to the past. Indeed, there will come a time for all of us when our beauty and achievements will fade away. It’s only when we separate ourselves from our privilege and entitlement in the present day that we can truly see God. It’s a far more valuable life lived if at the end of it, rather than a special mention of my love for myself, my gravestone lists my love for my God and for my fellow man and woman.

Daniel Kuberek is a soccer fan and associate editor of Signs of the Times.

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