“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14, NIV).
Jesus told a story that contrasted the prayer offered by a Pharisee with the prayer of a tax collector. In this story the Pharisee portrays a good and moral person–a religious person–and the tax collector portrays an immoral and sinful person.
While their behavior is similar–praying at the temple–their words and the attitudes expressed by their prayers are quite different. The Pharisee is absolutely certain of his righteousness while the tax collector is obviously doubtful of his.
Like many of Jesus’ parables the meaning is revealed as an unexpected truth, a contradiction of commonly-held beliefs; the interpretation is in the inverse! In God’s Kingdom (in contrast to the way things are in this present world) those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The admonition of Jesus in this parable is an indictment of all us “religious” folks. In fact, this parable addresses what is possibly one of the most serious character flaws Christians must confront–self-righteousness. The self-righteousness of Christians may be more reprehensible to God than the unrighteousness of sinners because it’s probably more detrimental to the cause of Christ than the most abhorrent sin of a sinner.
God can have mercy on a sinner but His mercy is futile to the person who thinks he doesn’t need it.
When we Christians represent ourselves as “righteous” people, just what (or whose) righteousness are we talking about? Because if we mean our own righteousness then we are the same as the Pharisee in this parable–deluded and self-righteous!
As a Christian, the only “righteousness” I should exalt is God’s righteousness. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10, NIV). God’s righteousness invades my life by the presence of the Holy Spirit and hopefully, changes me so that I behave righteously.
Still, that doesn’t make me righteous. It means that God’s righteousness is at work in me by the power of His indwelling Spirit.
As children of God we can grow accustomed to walking in God’s righteousness. But, if we start taking it for granted, then we can start depending on our personal righteousness instead of exalting God’s righteousness that He has bestowed on us because of the sacrifice of Jesus. When we exalt our own righteousness by comparing our goodness to others sinfulness, we become self-righteous.
Even though we are the sons and daughters of righteousness our prayer should always be that of the tax collector in this parable: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4, NIV)