In Luke 18, Jesus addresses a group of arrogant spiritual leaders. These men have high morals, diligent spiritual practices, keen intellects, and solid reputations. All these things are good and not to be despised. However, the wise and gracious teacher wishes to draw their attention to two specific sins. These arrogant spiritual leaders:
- Trust in their own self-righteousness.
- Treat others with contempt. (Luke 18:9)
Therefore, to them Jesus presents this parable:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ 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 18:10-14)
The Pharisee, in his spiritual conversation with God, gives thanks for his self-righteousness. According to his own words, he is not guilty of harming others. Additionally, he is confident he is showing adequate love to God. The “separated one” sees himself as not breaking the two great commandments. In his own eyes, he is different. He is better. He is not like other men. He puffs out his chest and arrogantly declares to God how holy and grand is he.
In contrast, the tax collector, compares himself with no one. He looks towards the ground; he looks not around. And why is this? It is because he is consumed with his own transgressions. He knows he has never loved God with all his heart. He is confident he has not loved his neighbors as he ought. Yes, everyday he has violated God’s great commandments. Consequently, all he can do is look down, beat his chest, and proclaim himself a horrid sinner in need of divine mercy.
It is at this point that Jesus drives home the point of his parable. The one who looks respectable, exalts himself, fails to see his sins, and compares himself to others, he misses the mercy of God. He, who continually denies his sin and exalts himself, remains on the path of divine humiliation.
Not so with the humble and penitent tax collector. He receives that for which he prays. He receives the mercy of God. The totality of his sins are atoned for. His righteousness-debt is forgiven. An overflowing abundance of Christ’s righteousness is credited to his account. The humble and penitent tax collector, he is the one who goes to his earthly home justified; he is the one who is destined to enjoy exaltation.
Christian friends, where do we find ourselves in this story? Today, are we characterized more by the arrogant Pharisee or the humble tax collector?
Are we those declaring our own righteousness, or are we those without any self-righteousness of which to speak?
Are we better known as those who walk about declaring, “I thank you I am not like other men,” or by the phrase “God be merciful to me a sinner?”
Are we known as those who look around with neighborly contempt or those who look down with self-contempt?
Sadly, I would have to say we are perpetually prone to delight in our own righteousness while pouring contempt on our neighbors.
We Lower God’s Law – We are regularly tempted to adjust God’s perfect expectations. We lower the bar to make our leap successful. We change the standard to make our less-than-successful attempts seem successful. Weirdly, we make the undoable doable that we might declare ourselves doers of God’s will.
We Evaluate with Selectivity – We are often tempted to maximize certain commandments while minimizing others. In our evaluation, some sins are highlighted as “really bad;” others are somewhat overlooked and considered “trivial misdemeanors.” We focus much more on our external, visible, and public sins. Then, we acknowledge not those carnal affections and thoughts always raging within our hearts and heads. And as we work on our weighted sin lists, we consistently forget that one who breaks any sin is declared guilty of breaking all God’s laws.
We Add Laws – Because we are desperate to prove our merit by hitting the mark, we custom-craft rules and regulations. Then we give these traditions of man equal weight to the laws of God. We construct rules we can keep that we might deem ourselves law-keepers.
We Redefine Sin and Shift Blame – We are tempted to deny the reality of sin when our less-than-perfect responses stem from our fallen nature (physical or mental effects of the fall). We soothe our consciences by saying, “We were made this way.” Additionally, we seek relief by blaming our fallen nurturing (enemies, neighbors, parents, institutions, demons, Satan, God). In doing so, we are inventing an “out” for why we have not perfectly loved God with our affections, thoughts, emotions, words, and actions.
We Compare Ourselves to Others – We always seem to have our head on a swivel — looking here and there — comparing ourselves to others. Oh, we refuse to compare ourselves with the perfect Son of God less we see our depravity. Instead, we love to spot and out a “worse sinner.” His or her failures make us feel better about ourselves; we imagine we are good in the light of someone else’s badness.
But not us today.
Today, we will remind ourselves of God’s good and holy law.
Today, we will keep it high and lower not his standard.
Today, we will look at the totality of his commandments and not be selective in our appraisal.
Today, we will remember that if we are guilty of any sin, we are guilty of all sins.
Today, we will find no artificial glory from keeping our man-made religious rules.
Today, we will cease and desist our redefining and blaming.
Today, we will cry out with the prophet, “Woe is me; I am undone.”
Today, we will cry out with the apostle, “I am the chief of sinners.”
Today’s we will cry out with the tax collect, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
This is the mantra of the humbled.
This is the mantra of the justified.
This is the mantra of the exalted.
And then today, after looking to the ground and experiencing the fantastic touch of our Unfathomable Savior, it will then be time to look up and offer unhindered praise to God.
And then today, after looking to the ground and experiencing Christ’s affection, it will be time for us to show free grace to our prodigal brothers and sisters. We will make it unbelievably easy for them to come home.
And then today, after looking to the ground and being humbled afresh, we will then be more skillful in offering Christ’s undeserved grace to our fallen neighbors. And they, when they see our humble repentance, unusual joy, and gentle hearts, will be more inclined to come and find rest from their Great Savior.
Arrogant self-righteousness is repugnant. Humble self-abasement and Gospel repentance, it is a fantastic sight to behold!
I’ll see you at the cross!
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.