He [Jesus] 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

At this time of year a lot of emphasis is placed on being good. Elves on Shelves everywhere are watching our behavior and snitching to Santa, who is making up his all important list of those who have been naughty and those who have been nice. The parable above, however, sets forth something so counter to that way of thinking that we all have a very difficult time wrapping our minds around it.

It’s a good thing that Luke sets up the story and Jesus sums it up at the end in a way that leaves no doubt as to who got things right and who got things wrong, because there is no way that the original listeners or we would have figured that out on our own. The story is completely upside down and backward from what we expect, because, well, the gospel always is.

We learn right away that Jesus is directing this parable at those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Ironically, our immediate inclination when reading that description is to feel contemptuous toward those self-righteous individuals. It is just natural for us to distance ourselves, smugly, from those prideful and haughty sinners, never noticing that we are adopting the very same attitude Jesus is addressing.

Unlike many of us today who think of the term “Pharisee” as synonymous with “hypocrite”, Jesus’ contemporaries listening to the story were pre-conditioned to think that the Pharisee would, logically, be the hero and the tax collector would be the villain. Pharisees were respected as God-fearing men who believed that the focus of their life should be the pursuit of righteousness. They strove to be the best they could be and to avoid doing the things of which God disapproved.

We might want to assume that the problem was that the Pharisee was not giving credit to God for his moral victories, but the passage shows that this is not the case. The first words out of the mouth of the Pharisee were, “God, I thank you that,” followed by a list of unsavory behaviors God had presumably kept him from committing and another list of the good habits which God had apparently helped him cultivate. The Pharisee seems to be giving glory to God for the fact that he is a good person, particularly in relation to others who obviously demonstrated no dedication to righteous living, such as the tax collector, the other character in the story.

The mafia-like tactics employed by tax collectors--strong-arming enough additional money from their fellow Jews to line their own pockets--were widely known, and those hearing the story would naturally agree that the tax collector’s acknowledgment of his sin was simply an accurate assessment of his well-deserved condemnation. His cry to God for mercy could be interpreted as a brazenly antinomian attempt to weasel his way out of his just punishment. In fact, his request seems like an insult to God and certainly to all who steadfastly devoted their lives to the pursuit of obedience. It looks like a wicked scheme to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak. Contempt for this man actually seems justified.

On the surface, then, things seem to be looking good for the dutiful, thankful Pharisee who, out of respect for a holy God, disdains the seemingly disingenuous plea for mercy from the crook who has consistently exploited his fellowman and has never tried to obey God. Then, Jesus says about the tax collector, “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.”

Wait, what?! I can just hear the gasps, not only from the original crowd, but also from my Christian brothers and sisters today. I can even hear my own gasp, because this concept goes against everything I’ve learned and experienced in this world. It also goes against that glory seeking part of me that wants to be acknowledged as good; the part of me that craves recognition like a junkie craves a fix.

Something seems so noble about trying to be good and law abiding. That is what the Pharisee was trying to do. Our flesh, or Old Adam, however, cannot pull that off without tainting it with pride, or as Jesus puts it at the conclusion of the parable, we exalt ourselves and end up needing to be humbled, at which point we have certainly ceased to be “good”. A few verses later, in this same chapter in Luke (no coincidence, I’m sure), Jesus made a point of stating, to one who solemnly believed that he was good because he was an inveterate commandment keeper, the fact that no one is good except God alone. There is something in each of us that so wants to be “worthy”, but only One is worthy.

Do I think Jesus is suggesting that running amok, taking advantage of others and expecting to get a free pass is preferable to trying to be nice people? Of course not!

I only know that the Pharisee in this parable thought his God-assisted deeds counted for something, as if they were his contribution. That belief resulted in him comparing himself with the tax collector and feeling superior. The tax collector, however, was painfully aware that he had nothing to offer God but his sin. He claimed no goodness, but threw himself on God’s wholly undeserved mercy, and in the end, he was the one who was declared righteous.

Much to our surprise, in the lingo of Santa Claus and the Elves, it’s only those who acknowledge that they deserve nothing but lumps of coal who are lavished with gifts.