I remember as a kid having a kind of hate/love relationship with the IOWA Basics. Those were the standardized testing of my day. (Replaced now by ITBS testing) I hated taking the tests themselves. I loved getting done in some of the sections way before my classmates did. I hated the math sections because I never finished those sections. I loved it when the scores came back, because this not very gifted athlete was gifted in some of those intellectual areas. What was different than the normal scoring, if you remember, is that your ‘grade’ came back as a percentile. Not how many did I get right compared to how many did I get wrong – but “Where do you stand in relationship to everyone else who has taken this test?” The difference is akin to asking if Mizzou should be ranked #1 in football this week. They have a perfect grade – 100%. But what is their ranking in comparison to the other teams in the nation – that is the percentile question. At its best, percentile ranking was a way of gauging whether you were learning in any particular grade the things you were supposed to be learning. At its worst, it was a way feeling good by putting others down.
This Sunday’s Gospel is all about a person who never got past the ‘percentile ranking’ way of looking at his life. You heard the story and its conclusion. The Pharisee is criticized by Jesus not because he said anything that was not true. The Pharisee was correct in saying he was “not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” However, that is where he gets in trouble – the moment he begins to find his worth by comparison to others.
God does not want us to rank ourselves in comparison to others. Like the Pharisee, each one of us can look good if we position ourselves next to the right people. But God wants each of us to examine our own life in terms of the abilities, blessings, and opportunities God gives us and in light of God’s continuing call to grow in holiness. “How am I doing in relationship to how I could be and should be doing?” That is the only percentile comparison that matters. What needs to be changed within me? What attitudes are getting in the way of my love for God and his people? Our prayer should spring from that place, rather than a boastful and arrogant sense of self aggrandizement.
The tax collector gets it right in this regard. Knowing his need for God, he doesn’t even try to make an excuse for his life nor compare himself to others. He just prays from his heart – “I’ve messed up so badly, God. I have not lived as I know I could and should. GOD – have mercy on me. God – please do what you do best – love me back into life…”
And we know who goes away redeemed in that story.
So this week, get off of the comparison game. Don’t ask the questions: “Am I smarter or wiser or funnier or more perceptive or a better haunted garage builder or ‘whatever-er’ than my peers and classmates?” It doesn’t matter. There will always be people better than you and worse than you. Those percentile questions are not worth the asking or answering, because they will trap you in an endless cycle of Iowa Basic comparisons. Be rather like a reservoir who is content to fill up and spill over – and is not ashamed to be only as ‘productive’ as the stream that fills it. God has given to each of us a different measure of different gifts. It is ours to use OUR gifts fully and well.
Stand this week in the only place that works, Jesus tells us. Stand in the knowledge of your need for God’s love and mercy, and in the giftedness that God has put uniquely into your hearts. For if you stand there, then God can and will use you well…