There’s a story told about a businessman well known for his ruthlessness who once announced to writer Mark Twain, “Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read the 10 Commandments aloud at the top.”
“I have a better idea,” replied Twain. “You could stay in Boston and keep them.”
Our passage today is one of Jesus’ most famous parables that speaks to the insidious sin of self-righteousness. It was a spiritual problem among many religious leaders who Jesus often rebuked, much to their chagrin.
We’re not left in doubt regarding Jesus’ reason for this parable. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
Colly Caldwell was right when he wrote, “Self-righteous people (not just card-carrying Pharisees in Jesus’ day) fail to have proper respect for others and inevitably treat them with contempt. Presuming themselves to be knowledgeable and righteous, thus secure in their fellowship with God, they are condescending toward others.”
Self-righteousness is so subtle that it’s difficult to detect in our own lives, yet we can see it in others. And, of course, non-Christians can easily see it in the lives of self-righteousness religious people.
The parable is short, but easily understood when looking at these two men.
“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!’
The parable teaches several lessons still applicable for the 21st century.
#1 Self-righteousness is a sin.
Make no mistake about it. Jesus goes beyond saying that this not isn’t a good quality. Or you can do better. Or offering a mere suggestion to change. He’s saying the Pharisee is wrong.
In His Mountain Message, Jesus plainly said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
#2 Righteousness is not defined by what we don’t do.
The Pharisee wasn’t an adulterer. But did he lust? He didn’t engage in extortion. But was he greedy? He wasn’t unjust. But was he unkind? Unloving? And unforgiving?
Too often we make ourselves feel good by defining our faith by the negatives we avoid, instead of the positive aspects of Chrstianity that should characterize our lives.
#3 Attitude is just as important as actions.
The attitude of the Pharisee was one of contempt. Pride. Arrogance. Smugness. Disdain. And disrespect.
We are called upon to have “the attitude of Christ” (Phil. 2:5). In the parable Jesus is teaching the value of humility. Meekness. Self-abasement.
Indeed “God resists the proud. But gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).
#4 Don’t be guilty of wrongly judging others.
The Pharisee thought he knew the publican. You know. All tax-collectors are just alike. They’re all greedy. They all cheat, steal, and take advantage of others.
Truth is, he didn’t know the heart of this man. He couldn’t see his brokenness. His contrite spirit. His hurting heart.
Hopefully, the lesson is not lost on us. Making sweeping generalizations about groups of people is almost always inaccurate. We don’t know what others are feeling or thinking.
#5 Self-righteousness leads to self-justification, instead of relying on the Lord.
“The greatest enemy to human souls is the self-righteous spirit which makes men look to themselves for salvation,” wrote Charles H. Spurgeon.
We can’t save ourselves by our own good works. Or shunning certain sins. Or by our perceived righteousness. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Finally, realize how subtle self-righteousness is. Like the Bible class teacher who concluded teaching the children this parable said, “Ok, children. Now let’s pray and thank God we’re not like the Pharisee.”
The words of Jesus ought to ring in our ears.
I tell you, this man (the publican) went down to his house justified rather than the other (the Pharisee); for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman.