Let Go of Self-Righteousness
I’ve found a reason for me
To change who I used to be
A reason to start over new
And the reason is you.
— Hoobastank, “The Reason”
Jesus told many riveting parables in the Scriptures.
He spoke of the kingdom of God as a pearl, a mustard seed, and leaven. He revealed the power of redemption through a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son, all of which were eventually found (Luke 15). The son’s overjoyed father affirms this as the parable concludes:
“We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:32)
Indeed – new life begins with the Father by way of the Son (John 14:6).
Like the prodigal son, millions of people in the world have demanded their inheritance to spend towards their own selfish ends. Furthermore, most will not “come to their senses,” acknowledge their sins, and return home like the lost son.
The head has a way of preventing the heart from doing this, and the fierce tension is noted in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector). This is the story in which we still find ourselves.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:10).
Before delving into this parable, remember that Jesus shared this story in response to those who were “confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9). Do we not have the tendency to look down on others and silently revel in our own sense of self-righteousness? I have committed this sin many times before, and know I’m bound to do so again in the future.
Which man is going to be looked upon with greater esteem, with higher regard, with more honor? A Pharisee who lives by the letter of the Law (Matthew 5:18) or a tax collector who is working for the despised Roman empire? Publicans were treated with contempt by their fellow countrymen; they were traitors, turncoats, and outcasts. They lined their pockets at the expense of others. In short, they were intensely hated.
But the Pharisee is the one scorned in this parable – not the detested tax collector. Consider the words of Matthew Henry:
“Now Christ by this parable would show such [the Pharisees] their folly and that thereby they shut themselves out from acceptance with God.”
After entering the temple, the Pharisee starts remarking on his acts of righteousness. Do you identify with him as you contemplate your own good works? First, he thanks God that he’s not like other people, i.e. the wicked of society; second, he fasts twice a week; third, he tithes regularly. Is this not admirable?
Sighs and Groans
According to Jesus, the Pharisee is shallow. Surface and no substance. Jesus calls out the Pharisee for his behavior, too. In the first few chapters of Matthew, Jesus remarks on numerous subjects, including prayer, charity, and fasting. Prior to delivering the Lord’s Prayer, he issues this caution.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5).
To be seen by others – this is the motivation of the Pharisee. He is a whitewashed tomb, beautiful on the outside but dead on the inside (Matthew 23:27).
Standing at a distance from the temple is the loathed tax collector. Painfully aware of his sin and insecurity, he can only lower his head and cry out to a merciful God for mercy. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
His words still resonate today, do they not? All I can do is fall on my knees and echo his confession verbatim, for I too am a wounded sinner in need of a supernatural forgiveness. His is a brief but mighty prayer that we would all be wise to heed, a prayer that should rise to the Father on a daily basis with meekness and reverence and fervor.
Ponder the words of Matthew Henry again.
“His [the Publican’s] prayer was short. Fear and shame hindered him from saying much; sighs and groans swallowed up his words; but what he said was to the purpose: God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The Publican isn’t named in this parable, but he does bring to mind two other tax collectors of note in the Scriptures: Matthew and Zacchaeus. Both worked in conjunction with Rome and were thus despised by their fellow Jews; however, an intersection with Jesus changed the lives of these men. The new trajectory would be both radical and revealing.
If you study the call of Jesus closely, you quickly notice the immediacy of the respondents. When Jesus asked ordinary men to become a disciple, they didn’t hesitate. Take Matthew.
“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” (Matthew 9:9).
Zacchaeus, a man of short stature, scaled a sycamore tree to see the popular rabbi as he entered the city of Jericho. Jesus singled him out by name, informing this chief tax collector that He needed to stay at his home. Zacchaeus came down “at once” to gladly welcome the rabbi into his house.
Along with responding to Jesus’ words without delay, Matthew and Zacchaeus charted a new course. Matthew relinquished his lucrative profession and started following a man who had “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Zacchaeus, knowing full well that he had taken advantage of others, made drastic restitution.
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Matthew and Zacchaeus, men who were once despised as lowly tax collectors, are now lauded as heroes of faith. Like the prodigal, they “came to their senses” and returned home. The response of Jesus to Zacchaeus is equally valid for Matthew – and for us.
“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
The takeaway of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is straightforward. There’s no gray area. “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). This takeaway is echoed in Matthew 9:13. “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matthew Henry clarifies this verse well.
“The gospel call is a call to repentance; a call to us to change our minds, and to change our ways. If the children of men had not been sinners, there had been no need for Christ to come among them. Let us examine whether we have found out our sickness, and have learned to follow the directions of our great Physician.”
When I consider the behavior of the Pharisee, I can’t help but see a reflection of myself. Proverbs 27:19 affirms this internal tension. “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.” I love to compare myself to others, to those who know Christ and those who don’t. I take stock of my own sense of self-righteousness, the good deeds that are an expression of my faith.
But then I cringe in horror as I realize that the head is overpowering the heart once again. Self-righteousness is suppressing brokenness. Self-justification is stifling sanctification. The chilling words of the prophet Isaiah cry out to me, to us.
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
Bedraggled, Beat-up, and Burnt-out
Though I’m now justified by faith and Christ is my treasure (Matthew 6:21), I must continually recognize that I’m a man given to sin, prone to stumble, likely to trip and fall as a result of my own folly. I don’t rise with intentions of willful sin, but it’s bound to befall me sooner or later. Accordingly, I wish to fall on the side of the tax collector. I wish to be in the company of Matthew and Zacchaeus. I wish to befriend someone who likes to be in the company of sinners (Luke 19:7).
Author Brennan Manning uses the term ragamuffin, e.g. the “bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.” In the opening of his noteworthy 2005 book, he adds this: “The Ragamuffin Gospel is for honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.”
Paul described himself as the chief of sinners (I Timothy 1:15), and ragamuffin seems like a fitting synonym for sinner. Take a moment to contemplate the entirety of 1:15.
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
We are the ragamuffins in need of a Savior who’s willing to dirty his hands by washing off the dirt that cakes our soiled feet (John 13:5). As he makes clear in Matthew 9:13, “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Thank you, Lord, for mercy.
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