When I know exactly...

What is it like to think you know exactly what's going on, to be sure of everything?

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There is a topic that has been bothering me for a long time and that I am confronted with again and again. It's about the fact that some people believe they know exactly what's going on and it can't be any other way.

Here and there I have also addressed this in my sermons over the last two years, but I have looked at these sermons again and can thus avoid repeating myself too much.

I would like to look at a Bible text from the New Testament with you, a parable told by Jesus Christ (Luke 18:9-14).

9 Then Jesus turned to some people who, full of self-confidence, thought they were righteous in God's eyes and therefore had only contempt for others. He told them the following parable: 10 "Two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, went into the temple to pray. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed for himself: 'I thank you, God, that I am not like other people, all these robbers, cheats, adulterers, or like that tax collector there. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.' 13 But the tax collector stopped far away and did not even dare to look up to heaven. He beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner.'14 I tell you: This man was declared innocent by God, the other was not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled by God; and he who humbles himself will be exalted by God."


The first sentence is already very interesting, especially the statement "full of self-confidence". Other Bible translations write "convinced", "confident in themselves", yet others choose a clearly negative expression, such as "self-righteous" or with "false self-confidence".

The word that is here in the basic text is actually the word "convinced" and is also used positively in other biblical passages. The negative overall sound only comes in through the context here. In German, we also know the statement "to be very convinced of oneself", which always sounds negative.

But self-confidence is actually a positive term; it becomes negative here because some people derive from their self-confidence a right to look down on others.

How does such self-confidence develop? I think there are three causes.

"Stand" can mean "origin" or belonging to a group. I belong somewhere, therefore I deserve more trust, or more privileges, or am simply better.

That was the case with the nobility in the past. Just by belonging to the nobility, you had privileges and, if you belonged to it, you thought it was right, as it is. If you belong to it, you usually think it's right.

Perhaps that also played a role in the Pharisee. The Pharisees were a school in ancient Judaism and to be part of it, you had to study and learn a lot. If you made it, then you were already recognised by the people. That was something to be proud of.

And here we also have the transition to the second source of self-confidence, knowledge.

Such a Pharisee has studied so much, he must know the ropes. And his colleagues certainly encourage him.

It's a bit reminiscent of a filter bubble. You belong together, you know exactly what's going on and you can't take the others seriously.

Yes, with knowledge it's always such a thing. Half a year ago, I mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect in a sermon. This effect describes the cognitive distortion in the self-image of incompetent people to overestimate their own knowledge and ability. (This sentence is copied from Wikipedia).

If you plot this as a curve, the result is Mount "Stupid". You may remember.

So if you draw your self-confidence from your knowledge, then you should critically question where you are on this graph. Maybe you are standing on the mountain "Doof".

It could be worse:

In one study, participants in this research were asked to assess their knowledge of 150 different topics. Among these topics were 30 topics that were merely an invention of the experimenters. Of the real topics, 44% of the respondents claimed to know them to some extent. Of the non-existent ones, respondents claimed the same for about 25% of the topics. The authors call this tendency over-claiming, a form of self-appreciation that is independent of intellectual ability (Wikipedia: Dunning-Kruger effect).

Here, of course, we are at the old Christian theme of "humility". It is also found in Romans 12:16; NEÜ:

Don't think of yourselves as clever!

Or in the translation "New Life" I like it almost better:

And don't imagine you know everything!

As I said, the filter bubble phenomenon is not really new.

The third source of self-confidence is ability. Here, too, there is of course the danger of overestimating oneself, but the danger is not so great because one can often see what one is capable of.

Basically, a certain amount of self-confidence is of course important. You can often do much more than you think you can and you can always learn more.

But self-confidence must of course not become unhealthy overconfidence, and looking down on others is also a big mistake. And this brings us back to the parable.

I am right

What is the Pharisee praying here?

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed for himself: 'I thank you, God, that I am not like other people, all these robbers, cheats, adulterers, or like that tax collector there. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income'.

You can clearly hear the arrogance and hubris here. I am right and I do everything right. God, you can be satisfied!

Let's take a closer look at these statements.

He is talking here about "... I ... am...", he already sees himself somehow in a special position. He compares himself to the rest of the world and he clearly wins in his own eyes. The others, these robbers, cheats, adulterers, all these others are bad.

Today, it might be called "those conformist systematics" or something, but you realise that the method of devaluing others outside one's own filter bubble is not new. And, let's not kid ourselves, one is not immune to it oneself.

And in this statement, of course, there is also the fact that he knows exactly what is right and what God wants. He doesn't even need to ask God, but he can simply thank Him for being right.

And he also knows exactly why he is right, compared to the others. He fasts twice a week and gives a tithe of all his earnings. He probably even gives a tenth when he harvests some of his kitchen herbs. A little parsley goes into the soup, but the tenth part of the parsley is of course taken to the temple. This is how Jesus describes it in Matthew 23:23.

So, he is right because he knows exactly how God thinks and what to do and he also does everything right compared to the others out there.

The publican

Let's move on to the tax collector, or customs officer for short. Of course, one must emphasise that the tax collectors of that time were not simple state employees, but worked for the occupiers, the Romans, and often collected more than they were entitled to. So you could compare them with today's corrupt officials.

So these customs officers were, one can say often rightly, very unpopular.

How does this tax collector pray?

13 But the tax collector stopped far away and did not even dare to look up to heaven. He beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner.'

He does not negotiate ("well, I am not that bad"), he does not compare ("some are even worse than I am"), but he sees himself at the bottom before God.

It is not easy to judge from the outside what he is thinking here, but he was certainly aware that he often did not do the right thing in his life. He probably collected too much often enough and is now ashamed of it.

He can't bring anything to God, somehow nothing is right in his life, so all he has left is this prayer "God, have mercy on me a sinner".

This awareness is the beginning of a Christian life. Before God, I can do nothing, I am actually nothing and I don't actually know how to do it properly.

That's how it starts. And sometimes, as a Christian, you have to realise again and again that nothing works without God.

God's judgement

Let us come to God's judgement (v.14):

14 I say to you: This man (the tax collector) was declared innocent by God, the other was not.

"Declared innocent", other translations write "justified" or also from "guilt released". This, of course, is the beginning, or a new beginning. God frees from guilt and so one can renew one's life.

In this parable, changes in behaviour or something like that are not discussed at all because, on the one hand, it would go beyond the scope of the parable and, on the other hand, despite all the difficulties, it results from this release from guilt.

The Pharisee will not change anything. He is right in his own eyes. He does not have the possibility to develop himself further, to learn. Why should he?

God cannot declare such a person innocent, he cannot give him release from guilt. Whoever comes to God and says, I am right, has no chance.

And now comes another justification:

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled by God; and he who humbles himself will be exalted by God."

And the Pharisee has put himself on a pedestal and looked down on the others. And in order to be able to come to God at all, he must at some point come to the painful realisation that he does not know everything, does not do everything right, indeed that he is not right.

And that is difficult. You are so sure of yourself and you feel so comfortable in your knowledge. It can be quite humiliating when your eyes are opened.

The tax collector has realised that so much is wrong in his life, that he is at the bottom and now he can start anew with God. And God will go with him and help him.


I summarise.