I don’t know Tiger Woods. And as a rule I avoid public comment on the private travails of others, even when their fame or notoriety inevitably makes them the subject of public attention and comment. For a long time, though, I have pondered the significance of the publican’s prayer, the simple prayer Jesus recommends by contrast with the self-righteous conceit of the scrupulous Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). As we come to know the dark passage of such an admired and popular public figure, the thoughts it inspires seem particularly timely and appropriate.

The Pharisee thanks God “that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” He cites his strict observance of the law to justify his sense of righteousness. Yet Christ makes clear that it is not the Pharisee but the publican, who “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God be thou merciful to me a sinner” who “went down to his house justified.”

The Scriptures tell us that Christ directed this account particularly at those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and were so preoccupied by that conceit that they held the rest of humankind in contempt because of it. Yet on close observance of the text, we see that their attitude toward other people is not the only thing it affects. The publican’s certainty of sinfulness makes him feel more fully the awesomeness of the presence of God. It weighs so heavily upon his brow that he cannot lift his head. As the Pharisee’s confident self-righteousness makes him feel distant from other men, it also cuts him off from the salutary burden that signifies the near presence of God, the fear that marks and constitutes the birth of wisdom.

Perhaps the essence of this wisdom was conveyed by Christ at another time, when “a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? None is good save one, that is, God” (Luke 18:18-19). All goodness depends entirely on the existence and presence of God. There is therefore no self-sufficient righteousness in the law, or in the will or actions of any human beings. As we cannot be good except by way of God’s presence, our good actions belong rather to God than to us. So we are accounted righteous, as the Apostle Paul repeatedly reminds us “Even as Abraham believed [i.e., trusted in, relied on] God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). Of course, Abraham’s belief was more than a state of mind. It was a consistent pattern of actions that were the consequence or fruit of that state of mind.

Without the presence of God, no goodness is possible. Yet in the presence of God, all of us must be conscious of our sinfulness. The Pharisee’s prayer bespeaks a mind that relies for its sense of right on the comparison of our actions with the actions of other men, when an accurate sense of right arises from the acknowledgment that right action is only revealed by and in the presence of God. We cannot, therefore, review our own right actions without being weighed down by His presence, literally humbled by the deficiency that is revealed when the good we do stands in the presence of the true and perfect good that makes it possible for us to do it.

The positive irony in this is that our consciousness of the true standard of goodness makes us less likely to scorn others as we compare their lives with our own. At a time when the crisis of our nation’s public life and existence so deeply involves a contest over the nature and importance of the standards from which we derive our sense of right and justice, this irony is worth remembering.

Many people, including me, are engaged with the effort to restore to America’s law and public policy the respect for the existence and authority of God on which our liberty was founded, and from which the U.S. Constitution was derived. All too often, people who advocate so-called “abortion rights” or who promote homosexual “marriage” talk as if this effort springs from a scornful spirit of self-righteousness, like that which Christ ascribes to the Pharisee. As a matter of rational, moral logic, nothing could be further from the truth. Those who seek to replace respect for the God-endowed standard of right with an understanding of right and rights based solely on human consensus, or the judgment of history, derive their sense of right as the Pharisee does, by comparing the actions of men. This moral relativism frees the spirit of elitist self-righteousness that leads the Pharisee to regard others as inferior beings, whose lives and actions are of no account.

As and when America returns to the right spirit of its founding, our acknowledgement of the godly standard it invokes will rebuke this elitist spirit, so that our sense of law and justice will again reflect the salutary spirit that is humbly conscious of our sinfulness even as it acknowledges and exalts the dependence of law, and right and goodness, on the existence and authority of God.

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