Hell is Other People
Jesus said: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18: 9-14
Writer and teacher Eckhart Tolle once encountered a woman talking to herself, much to the disturbance of others. Tolle then went to a public bathroom and said to his own reflection: “I hope I don’t end up like her.” The guy at the next sink looked at him and Tolle realized he had spoken the words out loud and that he was a lot like her already.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable verbalizes a longer list of “other people” with whom he is happy to disassociate. In doing so, he unwittingly debases himself. Meanwhile, the tax collector rises above by admitting he alone is a sinner in need of redemption.
The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once said “Hell is other people.” If he meant the downward spiral to hell starts with thank-God-I’m-not-like-those-people, I think Jesus would agree. The best way to get lifted out of the hell of self-righteousness, is to admit you are “other people” and also in dire need of redemption. The tax collector discovered that and was exalted. Blessedly, the same opportunity is available to every sinner including the Pharisee, you and me.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
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Matthew Laney is the Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, UCC, in Hartford, Connecticut.