“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” (Luke 18:9–14, NASB)
The prayer of the Pharisee is more common than most of us are willing to admit. I have said it a few times. That is not easy to admit. We Christians have learned over the years that, when you see the Pharisees in the Gospels, you know they are the “bad guys.” Therefore, whatever they are doing must be wrong.
However, there is a sense in which the Pharisee’s prayer makes a lot of sense. Everything that he says about himself is Scriptural. God does not want us to be swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or crooked. Fasting and tithing are noble activities, commended and commanded elsewhere in Scripture (even in the New Testament). In fact, if you can make the Pharisee’s bold claims, you should thank God (as he does).
So, what is wrong with his prayer? Why does Jesus say that the tax collector went home justified, but not the Pharisee? We could stop by simply saying “he exalted himself,” but what does that mean? The Pharisee’s prayer was flawed on several counts.
For one, he made other people his standard of righteousness. “I thank You that I am not like other people…or even this tax collector.” Romans 3:23 tell us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, not the glory of another person. We can all find another person who is worse than us in some way. “I have killed less people than Hitler” is not exactly a reason to brag.
The Pharisee assumed the worst about the tax collector. Granted, first-century Jewish tax collectors often earned their bad reputation due to corruption and greed. However, the Pharisee could not see what went through the other man’s heart. For some reason, the tax collector was begging for God’s mercy. His life and conscience were troubling him. Why had he chosen this career? What temptations did he find irresistible once employed by Rome? How many corrupt things had he done, which he had initially promised himself he would avoid? Maybe other questions like these kept him awake at night. The tax collector knew his own heart, and so did God. Perhaps all of us bear some shame or regret known only to ourselves. Other people may know the rumors, and maybe they know the facts. They may not know why you have followed a certain path in life, or made some of your choices.
However, the Pharisee’s greatest mistake was that he did not search his own heart to find out where cleansing was necessary. We ought regularly pray, as the psalmist did, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23–24). The Pharisee knew what he was doing right. What was he doing wrong, though? Maybe his sins were not as obvious as the tax collector’s. Sinful attitudes, including pride, greed, and hatred, can cause as much damage as sinful actions. It is easy for us to condemn the sins that do not ensnare us. Unfortunately, it is even easier to make excuses for our own mistakes, to make it sound like our sins are somehow acceptable. At the very least, we often pretend our sins are not as bad as those committed by the other guy.
May we always ask the Holy Spirit to reveal our own sin to us. He can work in our hearts as well as the hearts of others. However, we have to open our hearts to Him. May He do His perfect work in our hearts, as we trust Him to deal with other people’s hearts in His own time.
This post was written as part of the Scripture Sabbath Challenge.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.