She was not aware of it, but one of Margaret’s secret purposes in life is to puff up my sagging ego. Margaret’s car was like Finneus J. Whoopie’s overstuffed closet in the cartoon, Tennessee Tuxedo. One day an archaeologist will uncover the fossilized remains of her automobile. The stratified layers of debris will allow them to accurately reconstruct her diet, her occupation, her income, and her monthly expenses. Margaret’s car was a combination, office, storage facility, mobile restaurant, and trash heap.
Whenever I found myself parked next to Margaret’s car at my children’s elementary school, I would find it difficult to keep custody of my eyes. In the shadow of her overstuffed jalopy, my otherwise disordered, unwashed vehicle appeared sleek, and well appointed. My own habit of eating on the road and composting the leftover organic remains on the floor of my car seemed, by comparison, almost normal. “I may be a little messy,” I rationalized, while I examine her heap, “but I’ve got a long way to go before I hit that kind of bottom!” My ego loved it when I park next to Margaret.
I suspect that my bony physique is the equivalent of Margaret’s car for my fellow gym rats at the rec center. After a long hiatus, I have started working out again. Sometimes I imagine that I am detecting a stifled laugh as onlookers see me straining beneath a bar that supports miniature disks the size of my grandmother’s tea plates. I keep waiting for someone to offer me money to sit for the “before” part of the “before” and “after” promotional brochure. I believe that I provide a kind of message to my fellow fitness fanatics. “Look at him! It may not seem like you’ve been progressing much, but by comparison, see how far you’ve come?”
I remember a Sunday afternoon some years ago, when I provided a similar service to the soccer moms and dads on my daughter’s team. I had somehow misread her schedule, and was convinced that her Sunday game was to take place at 3:30 p.m. When I off-handedly asked her for the field number on which she was to play, she checked the schedule and discovered my mistake. The game had already started. After a frenzied car ride, Annalise loped across the field to join her teammates on the sideline. I slunk over to the parental side of the field and tried to unobtrusively blend in. Once again, I was the equivalent of Margaret’s car for a group of capable, organized parents.
In this Sunday’s Gospel selection (Luke 18: 9-14), a Pharisee parked his ego next to the equivalent of Margaret’s car—a sinful tax collector. This Pharisee apparently took pride in his buff spiritual physique. In this passage, Luke caught him preening and admiring his well-defined moral muscles next to a spiritually out-of-shape tax collector. As he preened, and posed, he kept glancing over his shoulder and comparing himself to the nearby saggy sinner. By comparison, he felt that much more in shape. For his part, the sinner was quietly acknowledging his need for forgiveness and conversion. In this passage, Jesus decisively put a red “X” through the Pharisee’s bad habit of comparing himself with those perceived to be less developed.
The drive to compare oneself with others is complicated. There is a way in which making comparisons has survival value. Learning from another’s mistakes, allows a person to avoid the process of reinventing the spiritual and moral wheel over and over again…at one’s own expense. I have a little brother who kept himself out of a lot of painful circumstances by simply studying me, and avoiding the pathways I took through high school. Some comparisons have survival value.
But there are other kinds of comparisons that fall into the unfortunate category of parking next to Margaret’s car. They are merely exercises of the ego. Ego-driven comparisons are those that compel us to measure ourselves against someone—at their expense. One of the many problems with the habit of ego-driven comparisons, is the pain this habit produces in the one who is doing the comparing. While you are casting a superior look at Margaret’s car, out of the driver’s window on the left-hand side of the car, a shiny Bentley might pull up just outside the passenger, right-hand, side. There will always be a richer bank account than yours, children that are more charming and intelligent than yours, spouses that are kinder and better looking (except in my marriage of course). The habit of indulging the ego through silly comparisons (like the Pharisee in this Sunday’s scripture) will inevitably lead to pain. But the ego is a tenacious house-guest, that is not easily silenced.
In my life, I have known one, maybe two people who have achieved a level of spiritual maturity that has totally freed them of the ego’s drive to make comparisons. For the rest of us, this Sunday’s scripture is like a soothing medication. Jesus’ way of dealing with the ego in this week’s Gospel could be found in the phrase uttered by the tax collector. “Jesus, be merciful to me a sinner.” What I hear in that phrase is a call to a profound self-acceptance. Following Christ does not require us to kill our ego. Rather, our job is to acknowledge when our ego has stepped into the driver’s seat of our soul. The trick is to develop a loving awareness of that part of the self that demands recognition, is driven by competition, that wants what it wants when it wants it, that is busy looking for reasons to feel slighted, that seeks to engage in negative conversation about someone else. This Sunday’s Gospel invites you and me to come to Christ with our ego and to allow Jesus to be that friend who can lovingly help us to have a good compassionate laugh ourselves.