Two kinds of people:
“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).
The Pharisee is full of himself. He exalts himself on the shoulders of weakness he perceives in others. Like a spiritual cannibal, he feeds his ego by “looking” for comparisons that (he thinks) will make him shine. I could hear him asking, “What’s that other fellow doing here?!” “He better stand at a distance!” “He better not make eye contact with me!”
The tax collector (despised by his people as a traitor), is uncertain about being in a holy place. He stays at a distance because he feels unworthy. He’s not “looking” for self-justification, only for mercy. Perhaps he’s thinking: “I probably shouldn’t be here.” “This is a place for devout and religious people.”
The heart of the contrast:
1. Self-justifying: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15)
Here is a man who draws attention to himself. He does good things for self-justification. He prostitutes what is sacred to promote himself. He uses condescending comparisons for self-justification. He “looked down on” others with the haughty eyes that God detests (Proverbs 6:16-17).
2. Self-renouncing: “He must deny himself…..” (Luke 9:23)
Here is a chest-beating, mercy-pleading, self-confessed sinner. He has a deep awareness of being unworthy. He appeals for a merciful divine intervention. He is not looking.
Are you living the life of project self-justification?
It’s disturbingly easy to fail to see how much we might be like the Pharisee in this story. His focus was on “project self-justification.” Religion was his tool of choice. Jesus warned his followers about the insidious danger of this when he told them, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Insecurity and people pleasing
Let’s not leave this issue in the temple with the Pharisee. There are other more subtle motives behind “project self-justification.” Two of the most common are insecurity and people pleasing. These are often the fruit of low self-esteem but whatever the source or occasion, we must face the truth about them. When insecurity and people pleasing dominate our lives, we’re living for “project self-justification.” Life is about me. It’s about how I feel about myself and how others see me.
Unlike the abrasive Pharisee, perhaps we’re doing project self-justification unknowingly. But we cannot ignore the insidious danger of motives that keep us focused on ourselves. The apostle Paul wrote: “I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant” (Galatians 1:10).
People pleasers often allow the wishes and feelings of others to control them. They do this because they like being liked. They’re enslaved to the opinions of people. They often avoid conflict because conflict makes them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes they use flattery to get people to think well of them. Insecurity is behind the evils of gossip and slander. Critics and faultfinders are also committed to self-justification. They “look” at others with evil intent.
When we engage in these actions, we’re in bondage to self-justification. We’re “looking” for faults and failures in others to gain good feelings about ourselves. This way of life goes well beyond the walls of temples and Churches.
Justified before God
Jesus commends self-renunciation as the difference maker in the man who goes home “justified before God.” This chest beating, mercy pleading, self-confessed sinner knew salvation couldn’t be a cooperative project between himself and God. He had no “works of righteousness” to offer. He knew his hope rested entirely in God’s mercy. He needed divine intervention, a rescue mission–a Savior. He begged for God’s mercy!
What kind of people receive mercy?
“The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 53:16-17)
“Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.” (Joel 2:13)
“I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)
“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30).
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
Jesus began in Luke 18:9 with a broader application before focusing on the Pharisee as the proud person. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”
Although Jesus used the Pharisee in His story, we must not limit the proud to the Pharisees. Many others were in danger of being self-righteous and condescending. So Jesus spoke to them (not about them to others) and described his target audience as a group of self-possessed people who thought they could live lives pleasing to God apart from divine mercy. And, as is common to human practice, their self-justification was something they validated by their disdain for others. In other words, they nourished their self-righteous egos based on comparative analysis. True humility rejects these measurements.
But before we limit the story to the Pharisee, let’s remember that the disciples have already demonstrated comparable tendencies (i.e. ego-building through comparative thinking and disdain for others). Not much earlier an argument had started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.
Jesus’ aim is “not designed so much around identifying as the culprit a particular Jewish group as to identify a set of dispositions and commitments that generate practices, perceptions, and attitudes that are set in opposition to the way of the kingdom of God.” The Lord’s purpose is “to warn against a particular way ofcomporting oneself in light of the present and impending reign of God” (Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 646).