9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18).
Do you know why and to whom Jesus told this parable? Verse 9 is clear on why Jesus told this parable. He told this parable because there were “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Not only were they righteous in themselves, but their self-righteousness led them to treat “others with contempt.” The irony of this parable is that though one is a religious pharisee and the other- a tax-collector, both of them went to the temple to pray. God sees both of their hearts, and He knows their attitude towards Him.
Which One Are You Truly?
Most of us, who consider ourselves as irreligious, are actually too proud to say in humility like the tax-collector- “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” We cannot truly say from our hearts with Paul: “I am the chief of sinners.” We think our sins are still somewhat better than the one who sleeps with prostitutes frequently. We say: “I could never do such a thing! I could never be like that!” When we look at murderers, we surely don’t consider ourselves “the chief of sinners.” No, we still think our sins are a little better- at least not like this person here or there. We may have not murdered somebody literally and surely we think they deserve the just punishment for such crimes. But the disciple whom Jesus loved, also said, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (I John 3: 15). We can surely say with others: “We are All sinners” to make ourselves feel good that we’re in a good company, perhaps because it plays in with our insecurities. We like to identify with the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus hangs out with when we read the Bible, and we say: “Look at all those Church goers who thump their Bibles. Hypocrites!” We are quick to judge but whenever someone pulls up a Bible verse and pricks our conscience, we quickly retort:” Don’t judge!”
Our fault lies in the fact that we think, by default, that the enemies of Jesus are “those” pharisees and they must be our enemies as well. So, even in reading a parable like this one most (if not all) of us are prone to liken ourselves with the tax-collector. And we should want that! But the humbling truth is that we are far from being truly repentant. No! Most of the time, the person we most don’t want to identify ourselves with is the one we most likely resemble, namely- THE PHARISEE who says: “I am not like other men.” What kind of people do we actually think we are not like? You see, our problem is deeper than merely parroting that we are sinners, or forgiven saints for that matter. What do we really mean in real life situations when we say “I am a sinner” or even “a forgiven saint” ?
We take joy in confessing the sins of others more than we like to confess our sins. We are too proud to acknowledge our sins, and too quick to point out other people’s sins- not realizing the mercy we have received. We claim a moral high-ground over others – all the time. To be fair, perhaps there are times when we’re like the tax-collector- we know God is holy and we’ve broken His laws, and that nothing short of grace will get us through in relation to God and others. But we quickly forget that we are deeply “self-righteous” ourselves, that we become accidental pharisees all the time. Theoretically, we know we are “sinners” and that we need God’s grace, but how many times do we often forget to share that same grace and love to others. How hard it is for us to say from our hearts with Paul: “consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2: 3). No. We compete and we compare all the time- based on our status, education, performance, religious experiences and so on. And many times, this hinders us from truly loving and giving grace to our neighbors. I have done it countless times, and so have you.
Brothers and sisters, deep down we all suffer from righteous-relativism. In relation to God, we know He’s righteous and our self-righteousness don’t count. But in relation to others, we all know we are “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Though we may or may not be affiliated to any official “religion” we are all deeply very religious inside and at times we consider ourselves as irreligious because we hang out with non-Christians who think just like us. We admire Jesus and we rejoice when we see Him rebuking the Pharisees, and we love Him for hanging around sinners. But we’re not close! Most of us don’t hang around social outcasts. No! We look down our noses over them and we pick and choose who we want to associate ourselves with. To tell the truth, most of us are not even mature enough to love real Pharisees like Jesus. He loved Paul and transformed his life, remember? (Phil. 3: 4-10).
But you see, deep down in our hearts we’re all very prone to be religious. God wants us to see this! He wants to change our hearts. And only Christ- the One telling the parable- is righteous. Only He is righteous enough to look down on us with contempt and only He is holy enough to say “I am not like other men,” for He is the son of God. He knew no sin, but went to the cross to do the will of His Father- that we might be forgiven and become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5: 21). The righteousness we have is not from ourselves, and we have zero ground for boasting in ourselves. We are no longer to trust in ourselves as “righteous and treat others with contempt” but to consider others as better than us because we are all trusting in Christ now- who alone is perfect, blameless and worthy of all our praise.
The only One who could condemn the tax-collector, and the only One fit to look down on Him with contempt says of him: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We hate Pharisees precisely because we are just like them, not “not like them.” The sin of the self-righteousness Pharisee we hate the most is surely the same sin that lurks deep inside our hearts. But the Good News is Jesus loves Pharisees too – including the accidental ones like you and me. After all, didn’t the former Pharisee- who severely persecuted the church say: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (I Tim. 1: 15).