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Avoiding “Us vs. Them” Attitudes

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).

We get ourselves into trouble as believers when we see ourselves as above other people and create an us (the righteous) vs. them (sinners) mindset. You hear this self-righteous attitude in the prayer of the Pharisee. His heart exposed several key issues we must guard against.

Delusions about Prayer

He was deluded about prayer. He thought prayer was for himself and told God and anybody listening just how righteous he was. Jesus says in Matthew 6:5, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” The Pharisees used prayer to get public approval and not as a divine exercise to glorify God.

Misleading Heart Condition

This prayer misled the Pharisee about his spiritual condition. He considered his salvation conditional on what he accomplished or what he did not accomplish. Jews would fast only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), but he fasted twice a week. He tithed everything that came into his possession, even the tiny herbs from his garden.

Self-Righteous Pride

He was misguided about the tax collector who was also in the temple praying. The Pharisee thought that the tax collector was a great sinner, but he went home forgiven by God while the proud Pharisee went home only self-satisfied. We are declared righteous by God based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. When we beat our chests and see ourselves as righteous based on our works, we are in danger of seeing others as “less than.” Our attitude should reflect that of the publican. When we see the enormity of our sins and the enormous need we have for a savior, then our pride does not betray us.

Take a Look at Your Attitude

It is easy in these times to peer across the aisle and identify people who differ from us as sinners, as “less than.” Take a step back in your life and think about the people you are struggling to love. Do you see those people across the aisle the same way you see those you are struggling to love? Are they easy to dismiss because you disagree with them, or do you see them as immoral? Have you felt superior to them? This could be your way of distancing yourself from them. The Pharisee struggled to see the tax collector as a peer, so that made it hard for him to see any value in the man.

When we fall into a similar trap, we look past our failures, our sins, and our need for forgiveness. Jesus, in this parable, reminds us of our need to recognize our spiritual condition. And we are blessed that every Sunday in the liturgy, we are reminded that we all fall short of the glory of God, and we cry out for mercy and receive words of forgiveness and absolution. Imagine giving that gift of forgiveness—passed on to those we come into conflict with and that we struggle to see as equals. What a compelling witness to the mercy and grace of God we must share with a world full of sinners like us.

Scripture: ESV®.


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Written by

Keith Haney

Rev. B. Keith Haney is Assistant to the President for Missions, Human Care, and Stewardship of Iowa District West. He has been an ordained pastor for twenty-seven years and has served multi-ethnic urban congregations in Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. He is the author of numerous devotionals, including One Nation under God: Healing Racial Divides in America. He is married to Miriam (Bickel) Haney, and they have six children and one grandchild.

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