Chris Arnade’s moving account of “back-row America” made me reconsider my own definition of success.
A Pharisee and a tax collector enter the local temple to pray. The Pharisee begins by thanking God that he is not a murderer, thief, adulterer, or (while peeking between clasped hands at the other parishioners) like that tax collector. As a postscript, he adds that he fasts two times each week and faithfully tithes a tenth of all his proceeds. In stark contrast, the tax collector makes an embarrassing scene. Standing at a distance, he proceeds to pound his chest, begging loudly between heaving sobs that God would grant mercy to him, a sinner.
On a surface level, neither man’s prayer is inherently insidious. The Pharisee rightly thanks God for the grace that has guarded him from various unsavory lifestyles and fueled his righteous behavior. The tax collector cries out to God for the mercy that only he can offer to sinners. What makes this parable startling is how Jesus concludes it: “I tell you that this [tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God” (Luke 18:14). The reason being that the interior motives of the Pharisee poisoned his prayer. Rather than expressing gratitude to God out of humility, he endeavored to exalt himself based on his apparent righteous exterior. And that divided him from the tax collector, who depended solely on the mercy of God.
It’s a sobering illustration of how our views of righteousness divide us from one another, but it also demonstrates how our measures of success accomplish the same result, an argument at the heart of Chris Arnade’s new book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. When we define success in a way that differs from our neighbors, we run the risk of looking down on what they value and potentially dismissing their …