In Luke 18:9-14 we see the difference between a Pharisee and a tax collector in how they view themselves and what God thinks of them.
And isn’t that where all our minds naturally lean – toward either what we think of ourselves, or to what God thinks of us? I grew up, for instance, without a thought in my head as to what God thought of me, because I was terribly self-conscious. I had a fairly dim view of myself too, based on how much more clever and sociable most kids my age were than me. It made me feel horribly inadequate and lacking, which wasn’t a pleasant experience.
But when I started attending church regularly at the end of my teenage that’s when I switched to what God thought of me, based on what my church told me was expected of a Christian. But that wasn’t a pleasant experience either, because again I felt horribly inadequate and lacking, never being able to come up to the church’s standards. So now I was stuck with thinking I wasn’t likeable to either God or to my fellow humans, and that was the cloud I lived under for years.
To deal with it I went the route of both the Pharisee in Luke 18 and the tax collector. I tried being very strict in my obedience to God like the Pharisee, so God would think well of me. But I discovered in doing so that I ended up just like the Pharisee, saying to myself as he did, “I thank God I’m not like all other men,” which for me included thinking I was far superior to other Christians too, because in my mind they weren’t obeying Scripture as strictly as I was.
But when I met and mixed with other Christians, I discovered that many of them were wonderful people doing great things in their churches and in their communities, which thoroughly humbled me – to the point I too “stood at a distance” like the tax collector (verse 13) in my shame and embarrassment. I didn’t mix with other Christians (beyond the few I knew) for a long time, and I couldn’t “look up to heaven” with any feeling of confidence or acceptance before God either. But maybe that’s what I deserve, I thought, so I went the humble route of the tax collector in Luke 18, beating myself up and doubting I was even a Christian.
It seemed I was on the right track, though, because in beating his breast and crying out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” the tax collector “went home justified before God” (verse 14). And “justified before God” obviously meant “accepted and approved” by God, because in verse 14 Jesus said, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
But does that mean I always have to be admitting I’m an abject failure in need of constant mercy to be accepted by God?
Well, I could think that, and some Christians I know have thought it too, because they were constantly bewailing their inability to conquer some addiction they had, and they were always flagellating themselves for how weak and pathetic they were. And they kept on telling me that every time we met, in the hope, I suppose, that their humility regarding their condition would smooth over their sin in God’s eyes and make them not look so bad.
But that wasn’t the context of these verses in Luke 18. Jesus was aiming his story at “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else,” verse 9. He was talking to people who didn’t think they had any sins or unconquered addictions to flagellate themselves for.
But it’s interesting what they thought made them so “righteous.” It was fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of all they earned, or received (verse 12). Both acts were on the fringes as far as being important and helpful, but they made the Pharisees feel superior to other people who weren’t so strict on themselves in such things. And what was their motive? Was it to be approved and accepted by God? No, it was entirely driven by the “right” they thought they now had to look down on other people.
And how on earth did they think that made them “righteous,” or “justified before God,” when there wasn’t a law in the Bible that supported anyone looking down on other people? What these very “religious” Pharisees were doing was horrible. It separated people Into “us and them.” And hasn’t it been that way ever since? Dress a man up in religious robes, or closet him away in a monastery, and suddenly he’s operating on a “higher, deeper, more spiritual’ level than the rest of pathetic humanity.
And such is the great danger of religion. It creates faith in self, and gives pious people the right in their own minds to judge others. On the other hand, don’t they have some right to judge those who aren’t doing anything but flagellating themselves for being sinners and aren’t doing any good religious works at all? No, because in Luke 18 it’s clear that’s never what religion is for.