“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable” Luke 18:9 (emphasis added)
Thus begins the much quoted Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from the 18th chapter of Luke, verses 9-14. Two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, are praying in the temple. The Pharisee prays: “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.” Alternatively, the tax collector stands at a distance, beating his breast, imploring, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus famously spotlights the tax collector: “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.”
It’s important to remember that the Pharisees of the first century were respected pillars of the Jewish community. The tax collector on the other hand was a truly despised member of the community. The Pharisee is devout, philanthropic, socially accepted, proud of his accomplishments. The tax collector is corrupt, weak, selfish, probably a thief and adulterer. Could the Pharisee be you and me?
Jesus chose the tax collector as being “justified before God”. Why? It’s helpful here to think about the biblical notion of justification, which can perhaps most simply be defined as “declared righteous.” Jesus is telling us that only God can make that declaration of righteousness—we can’t—and it won’t be based on good deeds or our standing in the community or by burnishing our positive self-image. Rather, our hope for justification before God—for truly being declared righteous—will simply be all about our surrender to his will and our trust in his mercy. That’s it: surrender and trust. It’s a simple but demanding prescription.
It strikes me that this parable can provide a lesson for our divisive times. Often impacted by public and social media frenzy, people all over the world, on all sides of the political spectrum, get caught up by leaders who become “confident of their own righteousness and look down on everyone else.” They are the Pharisees of our times, seeking justification in all the wrong places. I pray for leaders to emerge who will humble themselves and thus be exalted.