To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." ~Luke 18:9-14
I used to think we might appropriately think of ourselves or others as Pharisees if we or they added many rules to scripture, then judged those who do not follow these new rules. But, as often happens, I see things differently now. I see more.
I’ve heard the passage above taught several times. As I mentioned previously, I left those times of instruction thanking God for this teaching and thanking God that I was not like that Pharisee. But I misunderstood what is being taught in scripture. Part of my problem lies in my understanding of this phrase “humbles himself”. This makes me think of someone who is not in humble circumstances, but does not boast or take credit for his lofty circumstances.
But, in truth, the Pharisee is as much a sinner as the tax collector. This is not because he committed vile acts, but because no amount of his righteous behavior can diminish his need for Jesus. Therefore, his circumstances are humble. For all his righteous acts, he is like the tax collector. In order to “humble himself”, he must confess the truth of his need for God.
In addition, I thought the Pharisee derived his sense of his own righteousness from having obeyed various and sundry rules and regulations that had been added to the Law, rather than only from the righteous behavior required by scripture. I see now that, according to righteousness as I have always understood it (i.e., outward obedience), the Pharisee was a righteous man. He strives for the things for which I’ve always been taught to strive. But he and I both do it for the wrong reasons. We must be obedient to God’s commands in order to please him, to honor him, to fellowship with him. But to obey in order to be counted righteous before God can only result in failure!
But this is what I have been taught! This is the teaching I received, inadvertently, of course, but nonetheless. From the body of Christ: my Sunday school teachers, my pastors, my friends, the preachers and teachers on the radio and television I have learned that my salvation must be questioned if my lifestyle is not beyond reproach. By necessary implication, if my lifestyle is beyond reproach, then I am on my way to heaven. Our churches preach and teach righteousness, and this is critically important. But, we have let suffer (though we would never abandon!) the preaching and teaching of Jesus Christ, our one and only savior!
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." ~Matthew 5:20-21a
According to the same misguided thinking of mine, I thought this passage in Matthew taught that we must not only live righteously in our outward behavior, but in our hearts and thoughts as well. This is not entirely untrue. But, I think the point here goes beyond striving for pure hearts. I believe the Lord’s purpose here is to teach, not only that outward obedience is insufficient for righteousness, but also that righteousness is out of reach for us to achieve on our own. Jesus was not saying merely that in order to qualify for heaven, we must avoid unrighteous thoughts as well as actions. Rather, he was saying that the righteousness of these Pharisees will not qualify them for heaven as they so clearly believe. Instead, sufficient righteousness for the kingdom of heaven is unattainable!
"Are you still so dull?" Jesus asked them. "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'" ~Matthew 15:16-20
I derive peace and satisfaction from my righteous behavior, perhaps even pride. For my unrighteousness, I lacerate my own spirit. As for others, who can be admired? Who is perfect in righteousness? Who can be saved? All the righteous behavior in the world cannot save us. We need a savior! Yes, I am very dull, but it’s getting clearer.
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! ~Romans 7:24a