Most people have the innate tendency to boast of themselves, whether about their wealth, position in society, intelligence, career, or fame. This is one of the seven basic character flaws or ‘dark’ personality traits. There are several reasons for this. However, the most common cause is that it is a coping mechanism in people with a strong fear of showing extraordinary vulnerability. In these cases, arrogance can become a defining pattern. They possess the tendency of trying to manipulate others’ perceptions — to ensure that they get approval and be spared of criticism.
There are also those who, despite their status in life, remain humble and chose to be low-key. One such couple is my friend Lando and Linda. We’ve been close friends for more than twenty years now and all these time, even if they are extremely wealthy, they have preferred to stay out of the limelight, in fact they shunned away inclusion in a listing of the country’s wealthiest families. And I know they are. While we are nothing compared to their state in life, they have chosen to keep me and my wife as close friends — a testament of how they value their relationships. In fact, they invite me to their speaking engagements, or consult me when they need advice. I look on these gestures as symbols of true friendship and deep humility. To this day, we still maintain and keep this intimacy amidst the busy nature and clutter of our lives.
And yet, we also have acquaintances who have become arrogant after thinking they have become powerful and can do without God in their lives.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, our Lord tells of two contrasting personalities on pride and humility. The Pharisee had his life in what is like nowadays as ‘Excel format’: wonderfully in order, carefully planned, such that he thought his objective of going to Heaven was ensured by the way he lead his life. He surmised that since he did that, he had felt justified in considering himself above others who didn’t have that same level of control. He saw himself as morally superior to the tax collector.
Just like his present day counterparts, the tax collector’s job meant that he was often stereotyped as corrupt and thus subject to ridicule. He has encountered all kinds of people in society, and was more familiar with the intricacies and clutter of life than the Pharisee. It also meant he knew himself too well, and in humility, he was able to see God’s mercy and compassion.
Our Lord warns against self-righteousness as a threat to one’s character and soul. The thinking that one is in ‘control’ now becomes the root of the problem. Instead of recognizing that everything still depends on God, one can now look at himself as superior and therefore having difficulties in inviting God into his life. Trusting God becomes hard, failing to remember that we have an infinitely loving and merciful God who only means the best for us.
Let us therefore pray to the Lord, that we may be granted the discernment to acknowledge our lowliness in front of God, and that we may be able to see the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Unlike the Pharisee, may we not forget and recognize that we need God all the more.
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ (Lk. 18: 13b)