General Conference was this past weekend and I have had one thought in particular swirling in my mind since then. I think we often hear what we need to hear out of conference, although maybe sometimes only what we want to hear, but this time I felt so eager to drink up whatever our leaders had to teach us. I don’t know if it stood out to everyone, or if it’s one of those lessons that I in particular needed to be learning, but I couldn’t help but come away asking if I am sometimes like a Pharisee.
If you’re familiar with the Bible you know who the Pharisees are. The scribes and Pharisees were notorious for following incredibly strict rules and laws based on oral traditions in an attempt to live their religion, but in doing so, they completely missed the mark of becoming good through the law. Christ points out that they do their works “to be seen of men“, and calls them hypocrites.
Long story short, a Pharisee is someone who thinks they’re doing an awesome job at being righteous because they follow the law but they’re totally missing the whole point of the gospel.
Elder Renlund’s talk caused me to ponder on this, as he shared this parable from the New Testament about a Pharisee and a publican:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
“I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
“And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Jesus then concluded, “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [the Pharisee]: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”25
And then Elder Renlund hits the point home with this line:
The message for us is clear: a repenting sinner draws closer to God than does the self-righteous person who condemns that sinner.
That message of the danger of self-righteousness has played as one line in particular in my mind over and over this week:
“The Savior rebuked individuals who… self-righteously judged others as more sinful than they.”
That made me stop and ask myself, “Do I do that? Are there people who I have decided are more sinful than me, or that I am more righteous than?”.
It is so much easier to selectively look to the sins of others as the measuring stick for our own righteousness rather than to look inside ourselves and to Christ to see how He needs us to improve. It is so tempting to decide that we are more righteous than someone else, and feel good about ourselves and our progress as a result. When we try and judge who is (or is not) worthy of the Kingdom of God, in doing so we keep ourselves outside of that same kingdom.
Recently a young man in my ward gave his farewell talk before leaving on his mission, and he told the parable of the prodigal son differently than I had ever thought of it before.
In this parable there is a father with two sons, one of which asks for his inheritance and goes and loses it all with riotous living. This son ends up living in squalor and working feeding swine without having enough to eat for himself. He realizes that he would be better off as his father’s servant than starving, so he humbly returns to see if his father will take him back.
The prodigal son returns repentant, admitting his sins and asking to be accepted as a servant by his father. But the father will have none of that, he falls on his son and kisses him! He calls his servants to bring the fatted calf and rejoices that his son has returned. He brings his lost son into the house where they have music and dancing.
The older son, the “good one” who never strayed or wasted an inheritance, walks up to the house and hears the music and dancing and finds out that the celebration is for his brother who has returned. He is angry, and the father comes outside to try and entreat him to come in also, but this is the son’s reply:
Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
And this is the part I had never thought about before this young man’s talk- the older son is outside of the house, he is outside of his Father’s kingdom. His self-righteous indignation at the “sinful” brother being celebrated when he was the one who had been good all along was actually keeping him outside of the Kingdom. And we see again, that “a repenting sinner draws closer to God than does the self-righteous person who condemns that sinner”.
I can just imagine getting to the pearly gates and rattling off to my Father in Heaven all of the to-do’s I checked off, and him replying with an exasperated “I love you, but you totally missed the point!”.
The point was not to read your scriptures, it was to learn and grow and come closer to God. The point was not to keep your shoulders and knees covered, it was dress your body with reverence and humility. The point of visiting teaching was not to stop in for 20 minutes a month, it was a stewardship to love and minister to a daughter of God.
The point was not to avoid being bad, it was to become like God. I hope that I can stop getting distracted with all of the ways in which I am avoiding being bad, and focus instead on how I can become more like my Father in Heaven.