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Jesus once told a parable about two kinds of people who went to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. Most Christians are familiar with the parable, but without re-reading it, very few would likely remember the reason Luke gave for Jesus telling it. We find the story in Luke 18:9-14:
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."
"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."
Today, some 2000 years after Jesus told this parable, we might be tempted to look down on the Pharisees as self-righteous hypocrites. But in Jesus’ day, Pharisees were not thought of as hypocrites at all. Quite the contrary, Pharisees were the devoted religious minority of the Jews who were standing against the growing tide of liberalism and compromise with the pagan Greek culture of the Roman world. The Pharisees were the ones who were calling the people back to the law, the ones who earnestly committed themselves to faithfulness in obedience.
When the Pharisee in the story prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” he was not bragging. It was true. He was not like other men, and he was not even taking the credit for that—he was thanking God that it was so.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were notorious cheats and swindlers—Jews who worked for the Roman occupation forces collecting taxes from their own people, and who routinely inflated the bills for their own profit.
Those listening to Jesus’ parable would have instantly sized up the Pharisee as the righteous man of the story and the tax collector as the wicked man. But as usual, Jesus was making an entirely unexpected point, and this is the point that speaks so loudly to us: God isn’t helped or hindered by who we are or what we have done; he forgives everybody, even the worst sinners.
But those who think they are more righteous than others, even when their behavior supports their belief, remain in their sins, not because God hasn’t forgiven them, but because they can’t receive what they don’t believe they need. And that includes those, like us modern-day Christians, who might be tempted to think we are more righteous than the Pharisees Jesus gave the parable to.
The good news is that when we trust Christ, we can freely give ourselves to him, sins and all, because he won’t ever stop loving us, forgiving us and changing us.
I’m Joseph Tkach, speaking of LIFE.