Yesterday at services in Portland, the gentleman who gave the sermonette had a thoughtful subject to discuss  and he went about his message in a very intriguing way. First, he began with an object illustration that I found highly intriguing, in that he started with a can of Hansen’s Natural Soda, which was a frequent drink during his youth because of its supposed healthful qualities, even though it basically has the same ingredients as the international version of Coke where high fructose corn syrup is forbidden. There were really two particularly pointed insights I gained from the story, the first being that it is really easy to motivate people by negative advertising, and that it is rather silly to think of a “natural” soda with large amounts of cane sugar and carbonated water as being all that much more healthy than any other type of soda, and that the way that the company that makes the supposedly healthy soda has become more notable in recent years for selling Monster, a drink which makes no pretensions at health, made a fitting allegory for his critique of the viewpoint of the Pharisees.
No one wants to be a Pharisee nowadays, as the word invariably appears as some sort of pejorative about someone’s fanatical zeal, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy . Yet this too was part of the irony of the message, an irony I felt particularly keenly and also found to be very praiseworthy. When we despise others, we distort reality in ways that are immensely subtle and also damaging to our own self-knowledge. Luke 18:9-14, for example, gives the pointed example of the two people praying, and comments that the sinner who asked God for pardon would be justified while the Pharisee who looked down on other people would be condemned because he did not realize where he too was a sinner who had fallen short of God’s ways and needed mercy as much as anyone else. He was, in other words, the Hansen’s natural soda that had become a monster, looking down on the can of Coca-Cola whose unrighteousness was more obvious but not necessarily greater than his own. The irony, of course, is that we tend to look down on the Pharisees, not realizing that the act of looking down on others and labeling them and using those labels to justify speaking evil towards them and acting in an unkind and ungodly manner towards them gives us precisely those qualities which Christ found blameworthy in the Pharisees.
We should note that there was much to appreciate in the Pharisees, as hard as that may be for us to see at this present point. Paul himself had been a Pharisee, and it was possible for a repentant Pharisee who overcame self-righteousness and a belief in the legitimacy of the Oral Torah to become a Christian. Pharisees had a high degree of respect for God’s law, after a fashion, and believed in angels and the resurrection, both of which were denied by their rivals the Sadducees. Little of this is remembered or regarded when we use Pharisee as an epithet for someone we don’t happen to like–something I have even done from time to time, regrettably. In our time, rather than for any of the good parts of their belief system and practices, Pharisees are remembered in large part for the way that they labeled others as a way to look down on them, which is precisely what we are doing when we label others as Pharisees as a way of thinking them as self-righteous hypocrites whose moral blindness means that they have no moral standing nor any sort of dignity or honor that we are compelled to respect. The result is that we set ourselves up as their judges and moral superiors and view them as beneath contempt.
Why is this so easy for us to do? Why does the hatred of hypocrisy and self-righteousness encourage us to be self-righteous hypocrites ourselves? Why is it so easily to motivate people by looking down on others? The fact that these problems are so universal and so damaging to our well-being suggests that such matters are deeply tied in with matters of fundamental human importance. Clearly, when other people look down on us, we tend to view them in a particularly negative fashion, and our initial response is to try to find some sort of weakness or shortcoming in them that justifies us viewing them the way they view us. Being looked down on offends some sort of strong need for dignity and honor within us. I must admit I am very prickly about such matters myself, and the fact that this prickliness tends to be shared rather widely is not too surprising. A great deal of the quarrels in our world–between the two sexes, between various ethnic groups and social classes and different governments and so on–exists because of offenses over matters of dignity and honor. To offend someone’s dignity can be a fateful and even a fatal mistake, and yet although we are deeply sensitive to slights to our own honor we tend to be less sensitive when it comes to slighting the dignity of otheres.
It should not be this way, and yet it is. The fault appears to be our inability to empathize well with others. One of the most important aspects of knowing ourselves is to have the interior knowledge that allows us to be fair and just and kind in our dealings with other people. To the extent that we are aware that there is a wide gulf in the way that we see ourselves and the way that others see us, we can become aware that the same is quite likely to be the case in reverse. The extent to which we are aware of our own sensitivities can inform our awareness that other people may very well have sensitivities of their own that we ought to treat with the same degree of tenderness and consideration that we would like to be given ourselves. Our awareness of what offends us ought to give us some clue that other people may be offended likewise by us just as we are offended by them. I often worry that I am a particularly self-absorbed person trapped in my own private cares and concerns, nursing my own personal grievances, but I make a great effort to use my painful acquisition of self-knowledge to better understand and relate to it. Let us hope that others are doing the same, and that we are able to overcome the asymmetry that leads us to be so quick to look down on others while resenting and despising those who do the same thing to us.
 This particular speaker frequently has thoughtful messages. See, for example:
 See, for example: