Proper 25(C): Standing Far Off
By: Sarah Harcourt Watts
I’m lucky enough to spend my summers with groups of incredibly resilient, yet humble kids. I am the director of Reading Camp, a non-profit associated with the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington that provides free camps throughout Kentucky for kids in 3rd-5th grade who are behind in reading. Kids come to us with low levels of confidence, largely because they spend the school year comparing themselves to the star students in their classes. The kids who raise their hands the fastest, always volunteer to read aloud, and who do so flawlessly outshine them every time. At Reading Camp, we are able to create a failure-free environment, largely due to the absence of those star students. Without the burden of comparison, students are free to focus purely on their own challenges and successes.
When rereading the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the image of the tax collector standing far off struck me. The first thing it brought to mind was this idea of comparison as a burden. Before, I had only thought of the locations of the two men as significant because of where they were in relation to the temple, but with my reflections of how the campers compare themselves to others fresh on my mind, I was more aware of the positions of the two men relative to each other. The Pharisee defines himself on contrast to the tax collector. He builds himself up by tearing someone else down. The tax collector did not compare himself to anyone at all. Rather, the text relays that he was “standing far off.” We know that both men went to the temple to pray, but we don’t know whether the tax collector even saw the Pharisee. The tax collector never mentions the Pharisee, because he doesn’t need to. Of course this is a story about God’s grace—that God would exalt those sinners who humble themselves, but the tax collector’s focus on himself alone is the very place from which he is exalted.
But what can we do to be in that humble place, such that we can identify with the “right” actor in this story? I propose that we can “stand far off” ourselves. In an age of oversharing; of a constant knowing about the lives of others, we can step away. We can make an effort to refrain from comparing ourselves to others. Comparison sows seeds of discontent—often for no reason. No doubt the Pharisee was also a sinner, but he wasn’t going to say so while at the temple. To some degree, every one of us filters the messiness of our own lives when presenting ourselves to others. Our public personas, often displayed on our social media accounts, are the glossiest versions of our lives. And that, in itself, is perfectly fine. I don’t take pictures of my toddler’s most dramatic meltdowns and share them on Facebook. That would neither be fun for my friends and family to see nor would it be respectful to her. So instead, I share pictures of her playing in fields of sunflowers and visiting the zoo. These pictures certainly relay an edited down, neatly packaged version of life with a toddler, but there is no shame in celebrating one’s brightest moments. The problem comes when we mistake the glossy, public lives of others for the whole package of an authentic life. We assume that others don’t have real problems and don’t make mistakes. And when we compare our real, complete, messy lives to the neatly packaged lives we see from others, we set ourselves up for disappointment. We feel as though we’ll never measure up. From this place of discontent, we look for others to falter, such that we can build ourselves up. Thus, we compare ourselves to those whom we see as lesser. Seeing others struggle can make us feel better about our own shortcomings. However, whether we compare ourselves to those we see as greater or those we see as lesser, we are still ultimately the ones harmed by this comparison. We sound like the Pharisee, saying “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” in either scenario.
Instead, we should seek to stand far off; to celebrate the lives and successes of others without thought of how they compare to us. Like the Reading Camp kids who flourish without comparison, we can be can be free from the comparisons that fill us with self-doubt and anxiety. Like the tax collector and Pharisee who are so different but who can only be justified by God, we can come before God without consideration of how we measure up to others.
I still think this text is primarily about those who humble themselves before God being exalted. Is freeing oneself from comparisons a way of coming humbly before God? Is standing far off, focusing your gaze inward the way for us to ultimately go home justified, as the tax collector did? I’ll keep wondering, and I invite you to do the same!
Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She has also taught elementary school and worked as a Research Associate for the Pluralism Project, a non-profit focused on religious diversity. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and daughter, Ivy, in Lexington, KY. She loves being outside and tackling DIY house projects that should probably not be classified as DIY. She is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).