Today’s sharing focusses on the parable the Lord Jesus told, to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else (cf. Luke 18:9-14). The tendency to trust in, and, to be convinced or certain of, being in accordance with high standards of uprightness, goodness or correctness can play up in very subtle ways as we try to carefully obey God in as much as we understand His laws. When we to trust in our own righteousness, we rely on a flimsy defense that can easily be taken away from us by a stronger contention. The parable addresses a second audience which regards or treats others with contempt. We know that the Lord Jesus identified with this group of persons (cf. Luke 23:11, Acts 4:11), who can become cornerstones.
In the quest to live godly lives, we make various rules at various times and in various places, none of which is stipulated clearly in Scripture; but each of which comes from a desire to please God and avoid godless ways. There is nothing wrong with these good rules. They are required of any human organization – family, church, school or workplace. They all have good rules, which must be kept in perspective. Those who follow them must realize that they are not necessarily God’s rules, but are mostly derivatives of God’s rules.
A problem likely arises when our adherence to rules makes us so confident or too trusting to our own righteousness, that we expect it to save and justify us before God. We commit a fatal error when we move from righteous living (which is right), and come to trust in that righteous living to give us a standing before God (which is not right because it becomes haughtiness and self-righteousness). In the different religious practices of piety, many faithful righteous Christians look down on those who don’t partake in similar behaviors as being morally inferior to them.
The Parable of Opposites
The Lord Jesus teaches us that it is not by our doings, but by God’s merciful love and grace that we are found in the right. Two people come up to the Temple to pray – the same place with the same purpose. A quick glance at the two representatives of the addressees of this parable reveals a number of contrasts. Strictly speaking, when we look at everything that this Pharisee says we find it to be true. There is no doubt that he has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. By Jewish standards, he qualifies to be righteous (see Luke 15:7). He is smug to the point of despising others as immoral. He is so full of love and respect for himself but seems to have no love and respect for God and others. A slight reframe of his prayer might actually sound like some prayers some of us have uttered on seeing someone down on luck. We do it when we miss the true nature of the blessings we have. We do it when we trust in ourselves. We do it when we speak words of gratitude to God, but really they are all about us. We do it when we locate our being right entirely on our actions and being.
The tax collector, on the other hand, recognizes his shortfalls. He is honest about himself as he prays; sad about the fact that he is a sinner, and humble in his need for God’s mercy. He is aware that he possesses no means by which he can lay a claim to righteousness. He knows he has done nothing of merit; in fact, he has done much that is an offence to the law of Israel. He does not bring himself near the righteous One; but stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord. He relies entirely upon the Lord’s magnanimity. He is desperate, and too overwhelmed by his plight to take time judging others and splitting humanity into sides. He hungers for forgiveness and is saddened by his sin against God. As he stands near the Temple, all he recognizes is his own great need. He stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he could possibly have done or deserved, but entirely on the mercy of God. He knows that the only thing he can offer God is his faith and his willingness to repent and turn from his sin. And he does so!
Recognizing the Need for God’s Mercy
We know that the only way to enter God’s kingdom and live with Him forever is to have faith in the Lord Jesus. When we believe that He is the Son of God, who died on the Cross to pay the price for our sins, we are no more separated from God. It might be good that we keep certain rules in order to honor God, but only after we put our faith in the Lord Jesus. We recognize that we cannot be saved simply by obeying some set rules. Once we come to know that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, we have absolutely no reason to think we are better persons just because we do or say the so-called right things. Sometimes we behave like this Pharisee. But doing enough good things and keeping enough good rules, will not help us deal with our sins in order to enter God’s kingdom.
As soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of group, we align ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. The divisions are many – righteous/sinners, self-righteous/humble, ins/outs. The divisions are equally doomed because God will always be found on the other side. God alone can judge the human heart, and God alone determines to justify the ungodly.
Thus it is that the Pharisee leaves the Temple and returns to his home just as righteous as he had been when he came up to the Temple. The tax collector likewise leaves the Temple and goes back down to his home but he is justified, accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel. Seriously?! The tax collector made neither sacrifice nor restitution, yet he is named as righteous. This was on the basis of God’s divine fiat and ordinance! Each time we interpret this parable, we must find ourselves with nothing to claim, but our dependence on God’s mercy. This is how we too return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude, having been justified by the God of Jesus because we forgot if only for a moment our human-constructed divisions and stood before God aware only of our need.
Jesus is Our Hope
There is hope for both men who came up to the Temple that day. Anyone can be saved because things that are impossible with people are certainly possible with God. St. Paul was one of the most self-righteous, rule-crazy Pharisees of his time. Yet, he was saved by God’s mercy and went on to become the Apostle of the Gentile world. He travelled the world sharing the good news of the Lord Jesus, and writing prolifically that he contributes most of the New Testament of the Holy Bible. He was able to do all this because God’s mercy allowed him to enter the kingdom of God cf. (1 Timothy 1:15).
Like Paul, we must acknowledge that the Lord Jesus came into the world to save us. We are all sinners, and there nothing we can do to make up for that. All we can do is be like this tax collector in the temple and recognize our own need for mercy; recognizing that without mercy, we cannot enter God’s kingdom. Like the tax collector, we should understand that everyone sins and everyone needs forgiveness. We are not better than others, even if we strictly keep rules or religiously do lots of good works. God promises that if we recognize our need for His forgiveness, we will be lifted up (cf. Luke 18:14). This is the best place we should want to be.
Striving for Righteous Living
We must continue to strive to live a righteous life. Perhaps the challenge for us is to notice that we rather like being exalted. Sometimes we think of it as the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. We even begin to believe that things we do (such as giving money to the church, doing religious or charitable activities, being upstanding members of society, making a well-deserved salary) or things we don’t do (stealing, coveting, cheating, being unfaithful) really might justify us. Maybe just a little, and make us a bit better than those who fail where we have succeeded. We must let go of this notion as the parable suggests, then only will we go home justified. If we don’t, we remain prisoners to our own small righteousness. If we don’t, we present the face of the Church to the world, passing the message that the world is not invited to come in.
We may also need to challenge our own assumption that because of our failings because we do not measure up to the standards of the inner Pharisee within, we are someway secretly stained beyond redemption. There is plenty of good news coming through the parable. The role of the tax collector is freely available to all of us. Even though we are all sinners, we also are all beloved children of the gracious Father. We are likewise invited to experience the freedom that comes with casting away our flimsy armor and throwing ourselves into the arms of God. The Lord God is already there; He already found us; He wants more than anything to lift us up and lead us home.
Taking Steps to Lead a Righteous Life
We must have faith that God always meets our needs (cf. Matthew 6:30). We must trust in our heavenly Father, knowing that He cares for His children (cf. Matthew 6:32). We must put God first in all we do (cf. Matthew 6:33). It is even better to put God’s will first in our lives so that He might be glorified. When we have faith in our Father and put Him first, He meets our needs.
All hypocrisy and anxiety must be put away. Practice of the true righteousness of the kingdom will help us to avoid sin and everything that goes against God’s word; then the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ will be totally reproduced in us. We must remember that without Him, no one can see the Father. Our number one priority in life must be to have the righteousness of Christ. We need to surrender all of our ways into the hands of our Redeemer right now while we have all the time and opportunities to do so.
We shall make an effort every day to:
- Repent and accept Jesus as our LORD and personal Savior (cf. John 3:5)
- Live by the word of God (cf. Matthew 4:4) because we need the word of God to overcome temptations just as the Lord Jesus did (cf. Psalm 119: 11). The word of God must dwell richly within us.
- Believe that it is possible to live a righteous life (cf. Romans 3:22).
- Choose Godly friends and associates because friendships are made by choice, not by force (cf. Proverbs 27:16-17). Our godly friends will surely help us to think about prayer (cf. Proverbs 1:10). We have to make the difference so that the righteous life can give us the difference we are searching for.
- Avoid spiritual pride (cf. Corinthians 10:12) because we are not as strong as we think (cf. Mark 14:29-31 & 1 Peter 5:8).
- Develop a personal resistance mechanism (cf. James 4:7), by being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. Zechariah 4:6) so that we deal with besetting sin (cf. Hebrew 12:1).