I love the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. So much is communicated in those few verses.
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.” -Luke 18:9-14
Luke tells us that Jesus told the parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” It is important to remember that that isn’t two groups of people- such as: Over here are the people who are self-righteous and over here are the ones who treat others with contempt. Rather, those two sins go hand in hand. If I trust that my righteousness flows from within me, I’ll always treat others with contempt. I’ll necessarily look down my nose contemptuously at everyone who’s not keeping it together as well as me. Similarly, if I’m treating someone with contempt, it can only be because I think that I am the source of my righteousness. Self-righteousness and contempt are Siamese twins.
Whenever I preach on this passage, I spend a lot of time unpacking the ugliness of the Pharisee’s self-righteousness. Jesus tells the story to help us see the darkness and arrogance of finding our justification in the fact that we’re a little or a lot better than our neighbor. And, in this story, Jesus really lays it on thick. That’s when He cleverly lays the trap in the parable.
As Jesus gives me a sneak peek into this man’s prayer life, I always find myself saying, “Boy, that Pharisee is so bad. I’m glad I’m not like that!” And, the moment I whisper that in the quietness of my heart, the trap is sprung. I’ve done the very thing that Jesus warns us about. I’ve given myself solace in the fact that I’m a little better than someone else. But take heart! The Gospel is for Pharisees just like you and me! Jesus knows that we’ll do that very thing. He lays that clever trap to show us the ugliness of our arrogance is just like the Pharisee’s.
Interestingly though, the tax collector’s prayer doesn’t mention his neighbor at all. He confesses no one’s sins but his own. You might say that he simply throws himself on the mercy of the court. The tax collector doesn’t bring anything to Jesus but an awareness of his own sin and need. As a result, Jesus tells us that it was the tax collector rather than the Pharisee who went home justified.
Jesus finishes the parable by giving the reason for the tax collector’s pardon. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We see this humbling and exalting language again in the writing of Paul. He tells us in Philippians chapter two of the only one who became perfectly and completely humble. Jesus, Paul tells us, humbled Himself to death. And, as a result God has “highly exalted him.” We are to place our trust not in our ability to humble ourselves well. Even our humility is half-hearted and spotty. But the good news of the Gospel is that God has provided, in the person of Jesus, someone who was perfectly humble in my place. So, my humility is just an imitation of the real humility that Jesus lived and died for me.
That’s why Paul can call us to humility by saying in Philippians 2:5, “ Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”
That always struck me as an odd phrase. Which is it? Am I to have this mind? Or, is the mind already mine in Christ Jesus? The answer is Yes!
The mind of Christ has been given to me. His perfect, God the Father pleasing, humility has been granted to me. So, Paul can call me and you to live out the reality of the humility that we’ve been given. Even our humility is a gift. Because as broken, messed up sinners, we can find a way to boast about our humility. Instead of boasting in your humility, boast in Christ. He’s the one who gave you the humility in the first place. He gets all the credit!
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.