Jesus has given us a good look at our own self-righteousness in the parable about the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14. For the purpose of not bringing into this story some preconceived notions, I would like to set aside the title of Pharisee and publican and give these two individuals names. I’ll call the Pharisee Eddie and the publican Boomer.
Two men went up to the Temple of God to pray. The first man’s name was Eddie, and he prayed like this: “Oh God, thank you for your input in my life. I am so glad that I am not as some men that I see in this world. I have seen men who have destroyed their lives and families and brought great dishonor to their parents, because they had no character or self-discipline. The jails are full of greedy people who have sought to extort money that was not theirs, but you have taught me your law and gave me godly, Christian parents, who have brought me up to be satisfied with the lot you have given to me. Thank you, Oh God, that I am not like the unjust men I have come to know, men who take advantage of others. My soul hates their practices, and you have made me to be merciful to my neighbor and my peers. I praise you, Oh God, for making me a good husband and father. You have shown me the value of the family and have preserved me from the evil practices of others I see all around me. Thank you, Oh Lord God. You deserve all the praise for the good in my life (Luke 18:11). But for your input and discipline, I would be no better off than Boomer, who has come into this Holy Place and stands in the rear, behind me. I know him, Oh Lord. He has cheated so many people. The widow, who used to live next door to me, lost her home because of his underhanded business tactics. I caught him, myself, trying to cheat me, but his golden tongue kept him out of jail. He destroyed his family. He is married twice, and I am told he keeps another woman for himself in a city not far from here. His children are always in trouble. I even hear they throw sinful parties every weekend, drinking and disturbing the peace of their neighbors.
“Thank you, Lord, that my children are not so bent toward evil. On the contrary, your word has preserved both my family and myself. My children are involved in the youth group in my church. My wife is co-chairperson of our church’s Christian Woman’s Group, and I too have drawn near to you. I fast as often as our pastor suggests, during certain seasons, up to twice per week, though your word requires only one annual fast (Leviticus 16:29; Numbers 29:7). I tithe of all that I possess (cf. Matthew 23:23), though you have not mentioned that I need to tithe more than my corn, wine, oil and cattle (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). Nevertheless, in all this I lack nothing. You have rewarded me according to your word. Thank you, Oh God that I am not as other men. Indeed you deserve all the praise for the difference in me”
On the other hand, Boomer couldn’t lift up so much as his head in prayer, but struck his breast saying, “Oh God have mercy on me. I’ve done evil in your sight. I am a sinner. I’ve done many wicked things. At times, Lord, I seem to be a slave of evil. I am wicked beyond belief. O Lord, have mercy!”
Let us suppose all that was said in both of these prayers was factual. Remember, Eddie gave God the praise for his moral character and his family’s apparent deep religious convictions. Which of these two men would you prefer to have as your father-in-law? To which family would you offer your child to be joined in marriage? Which one would you desire to have on your church board? What is wrong with this picture? Forget for a moment that Jesus is speaking about a Pharisee. Is Jesus being unfair? Who among us would not be grateful to God, if our families were deeply involved in the work of the Lord? Who among us can look at the derelict, who has wasted his life, and not be grateful to God for our own life that God has indeed preserved. For there, but for the grace of God, go I. Am I not grateful for the change Christ has produced in my life? You bet I am. Every day I am mindful of his mercy and his love. Every day is a testimony of his grace and countless blessings that prove his love for me.
What is the key that helps us to understand what Jesus was saying? In Luke 18:14, Jesus says that this man, the sinner, “…went down to his house justified.” How am I justified? What makes me justified before God? Romans 5:9 says I am justified by the blood of Christ. We are speaking here in Luke 18:9-14 about two men who were praying in the Temple of God. They brought their sacrifices to the Temple, slew them, and prayed to God. These sacrifices typified the death of Christ (Romans 5:6-9) and our prayers of faith in the work of God alone (Romans 5:1).
If I am standing at the foot of my Savior’s cross, I shouldn’t be able to raise my eyes for shame. Any morality I have, may have its place elsewhere, but certainly not before him as he hangs their dying for me. My only prayer can be “Oh Lord, mercy! Have mercy on me, Oh Lord. My sin is greater than I can bear, and it is ever before my eyes. Oh Lord, mercy!”
Where is room for my righteousness there (Luke 18:9, 14)? Where is a place for me to stand and judge another man there? I have no rights there, no morality, no words, only shame and tears. God, help us!