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 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to show the difference between religious self-reliance and the humble sin-awareness that leads to redemption, between a person who trusts in himself and those who trust in God, between those who look down on others and those who look up to God. While I like to think of myself in the role of the humble supplicant, fully aware of my sin and my need for the grace of God, I find that more often than is comforting I live in the mindset of the Pharisee, and I’ll bet most of us do, too.
Every time I compare myself with someone else and come away with a sense of superiority I play the Pharisee. Every time I justify my “small” sins (what sin doesn’t bring death and is therefore “big”?) I mimic the Pharisee’s line- “I thank you that I’m not like other people.” With each instance in which I look down my nose at another person, elevating myself in the comparison, I think just like the Pharisee.
Pharisees compare themselves to others and feel superior; the humble are aware of their own sin and make humble confession to God.
Pharisees congratulate themselves on their own excellence; the humble plead to God for mercy, aware of their lack.
Pharisees go back to their house proud, self sufficient, and lost; the humble return to their homes justified.
It’s important to remember that in this very short parable it’s only the humble tax collector who was justified before God. The Greek term used here for “justified” is the same word Paul uses in Romans* to communicate the absolute right standing we have through faith in Christ. Pharisees may fool others, maybe, but not God.
This parable is a cautionary tale for me. Those with a religious bent, with an ability to keep the outside of the cup of their life relatively clean, can easily confuse outward appearances with inward integrity and righteousness. Those who look down on other, fellow sinners make the mistake pride always leads to–thinking more highly of themselves than they should.
There may be no greater display of sinful, death-dealing pride than for sinful man to stand in the presence of the holy God and declare his righteousness, as the Pharisee does.
I hate the vanity, small mindedness and small heart displayed by the Pharisee in Luke’s parable– so why do I play the same role?
“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
From, The Fool’s Prayer, Edward R. Sill