He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “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.”
What is the difference between this Pharisee and this tax collector? What was it that the Pharisee had wrong?
He begins his prayer thanking God… “God, I thank you…” He gives God the credit for all of his righteousness. This man doesn’t believe that he has made himself better than others, but that God has worked in him to bring this righteousness about…and he gives God the credit.
We believe this don’t we? We believe that God’s grace is at work in us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, transforming us to become more and more like Christ…making us righteous. And when we see this actually happening, we praise God don’t we? And we should…shouldn’t we? Yes!
So again I ask…what is wrong with this Pharisees prayer? The beginning and end of the passage make it abundantly clear…he trusts in this righteousness for his justification before God. He is exalting his own righteousness (God-wrought though it may be) as the basis of his justification.
The tax collector throws himself entirely on the mercy of God! If he is going to be justified before God (considered right and in good standing) then he needs a righteousness outside himself. We all do.
We need Jesus.
The basis of our justification before God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ which he freely gives to us. When God works his grace in our life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to transform us…all those transformed-righteous acts are evidence that we have been justified because of Jesus…they are not the basis of our justification! We dare not trust in anything in ourselves for salvation…we dare not even trust in our God-empowered acts.
We may see those things as evidence that we are saved, but not as the basis of our salvation. No. We look to Christ and Christ alone! We look away from ourselves! We do not exalt ourselves, but humble ourselves and lift high Jesus, his mercy, his grace, and his righteousness as the only means of our justification before God.
How would such a view have changed the Pharisees prayer? Perhaps it would have gone something like this: ‘God, I thank you that YOU show me grace because you are a gracious God and it is because of your goodness alone that I may know you. I thank you for how you are at work in my life, giving me evidence that I have truly trusted in you. I thank you for how you are transforming me and putting sin to death and causing me to desire more and more of you.”
Do you see the difference? His trust has been relocated from any righteousness in himself (even God-wrought righteousness) to the righteousness of God. Also…contempt for other people has been banished! For he no longer sees a fundamental difference between himself and the tax collector. No. They are the same and in need of the same righteousness…God’s righteousness which comes through Christ alone.
Are you trusting in yourself or in the righteousness of Christ? Are you exalting yourself or humbling yourself? One of the greatest evidences is whether or not we are holding others in contempt…that can only be done when we exalt ourselves as more righteous and deserving than others.
May we humble ourselves and trust in the righteousness of Christ alone.
*The complete SVCC Lenten reading guide is available here.