Through the eyes of Luke, I watched the Pharisee slowly climbed the temple steps. Self-righteousness oozed from his every move, pooling beneath him every time he paused. It’s a miracle he never drowns in the ooze while laying in bed at night.
The Pharisee opened his mouth and spoke as if to himself but in a tone loud enough for two dozen other worshipers to hear.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector…”
The wretched tax collector stood alone a little ways off. His pained eyes were downcast, and his shoulders were slumped. I wondered if the Pharisee’s self-righteousness might drown the tax collector as well.
I couldn’t help but utter my own prayer to God.
“God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee at the temple praying, looking down on the tax collector.”
Did I miss something?
Yes Daniel, you did indeed miss something.
Luke front loaded the story (Luke 18:9-14) with an explosive charge: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
Naturally, I condemn the Pharisee as soon as I read his grimy, self-righteousness prayer. I compared myself to him, and reassured myself that my deeds prove that I am much more righteous than he is.
Then I become the Pharisee. Like the hands of a Judo master, the parable uses my own weight against me. I condemn myself by condemning the Pharisee.
Now I am ready to hear where righteousness comes from.
1. Righteousness is not found by comparison
The Pharisee first compared himself to other men. That’s the first hint that I am looking in the wrong place to find my righteousness.
If two men were sitting side by side, suffering heart attacks, they wouldn’t judge their chances of survival by comparing shoe sizes. Neither should I judge my eternal condition by how I stack up against another man’s external appearance.
2. Righteousness is not found in works
The Pharisee proceeded to list a sampling of his good deeds. I am sure he could have gone on further, but God wasn’t taking notice anyway.
The Pharisee was not righteous by his own right any more than he was righteous by comparison. Neither am I.
3. Righteousness is found in Christ, always
Paul had the Pharisee beat, hands down.
“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philipians 3:4-6)
Paul also knew all of man’s righteousness is rubbish.
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ…in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philipians 3:7-9).
Charles Spurgeon comments,
“You will enter Heaven as fully by grace as if you had never lived a godly life, nor had practiced a single virtue.”
Now that I have been thrown to the floor, I am ready to kneel beside the tax collector, beat my breast, and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”