Do we make excuses and justify ourselves? Do we compare ourselves with others or God alone?
I want us to learn that God alone can make us justified.
We will discuss hypocrisy, self-righteousness and justification.
“They are all Hypocrites” (vs. 9)
A common excuse for not going to church is that “they are all hypocrites.” It is an allegation with self-righteous overtones. Hypocrisy does not begin and end at the church door. Nor do I believe that hypocrisy is more prevalent within the church than outside. That being said, there are certainly hypocrites in the church. In fact, that is what the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is all about (Luke 18:9-14). On the other hand, if these two individuals are typical of those who attend church, it seems as if there are two kinds of churchgoers. There are those who are self-righteous hypocrites, who use religion as a means to despise others. Yet, there are also those who realize that they are just as much sinners as everyone else and in need of God’s grace and mercy.
Who Dat (vs. 9)
Jesus addresses “some” who are confident in their own righteousness in our text. Who is that? Is that you or me or someone else? We may assume that because the parable includes a Pharisee that religious leaders are addressed. That certainly is the case, but are they alone? The opening description in the Greek means that they are persuaded about something. That is an attitude of mind, not just an act. These people actually believe that they are just and upright. How can we tell if that applies to us? If we have ever looked down on someone else, or viewed any other human being with contempt, or looked down our noses at anyone, or despised someone, then I guess we must admit that this also applies to us. As they say in New Orleans: Who dat? We dat.
The trap of self (vs. 9-10)
Doing the right thing is the right thing to do, but is salvation about our efforts? Being humble about our shortcomings is the right attitude to have but is salvation about remorse? After we have done everything right either in deed or humble attitude we can still miss the whole point. We can still despise those who have not measured up like the Pharisee despised the tax collector, or like we despise self-righteous religious people. Justification before God does not come about by all our efforts, nor an attitude of humility about our mistakes. Only his grace and mercy, his decision to forgive, does that. This parable has traps. We can focus on self, grateful we are not like the Pharisee or that we are humble. The focus is not on self but God and his mercy.
The loyalist & the collaborator (vs. 10)
Two men went up to the house of God to pray. One of them belonged to a group of people who had tenaciously preserved their faith in the face of harsh foreign occupation. The other belonged to a group of traitors who profited by collecting taxes imposed by the foreign occupying power. We would naturally think kindly of the loyalist and unsympathetically of the collaborator. Yet the parable in today's lesson challenges us with an opposite conclusion. It also challenges us to rethink conclusions that we may have made about people. We simply don’t know a person’s inner attitude. We do not know whether the one is self-satisfied and judgmental or repentant and contrite of heart. A person with a good past may not have a humble heart, and there is always hope for a person with bad past.
Publican or Pharisee (vs. 10)
In our text is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector). Most of us may tend to identify with the publican, but is that realistic? A publican was a public contractor who supplied Roman occupation armies, oversaw public building projects and collected taxes for the Roman Republic. It was a very profitable position, but at the expense of ones fellow countrymen. A Pharisee was a religious leader who had great popularity among the common people. The Pharisees were noted for their great zeal and devotion. Is it more appropriate for us to relate to the Pharisees? Is it we who attempt to live a good life and do the right thing, who need to guard against an attitude of conceit when comparing ourselves with those from the seamier side of life? Are we not all transgressors?
Self-Righteous Thanksgiving (vs. 11)
I always feel a little uncomfortable in our wealthy western countries when we thank God that we are not like other nations. Instead of just being thankful for what we have, we seem to want to compare ourselves with others and look down on everyone else. That seems to be expressed often in political and materialistic ways. We have democracy and they do not. We have wealth and they do not. It almost seems like the prayer of the self-righteous Pharisee in our text. Such prayers are one-sided and bigoted. Our wealthy western nations are filled with all kinds of evils not experienced in many poorer nations. We are not living in paradise. We delude ourselves by only painting a partial picture and ignoring anyone who would suggest that we are also lacking. Thanksgiving is good. Self-righteousness is not.
“He’s useless!” (vs. 11)
A particularly harsh saying in our society is to judge someone else as “useless.” It is a completely dismissive comment that is often directed at politicians, teenagers, sports players or others whom we may hold in disdain. Yet that kind of attitude which we all find within ourselves from time to time is evil. It is just plain wrong. Some people have a very bad habit of directing such comments towards others quite frequently. It is prevalent in some cultures to repeatedly hurl invectives like loser, deadbeat, moron, idiot, scum and so on at others. Even very religious people deceive themselves and fall into this evil. Despising others occurs when we delude ourselves that there is little or nothing in our own lives to scorn. It reveals a naïveté and self-deception about our own sins and faults.
Self-Righteous Delusion (vs. 11)
Have we ever thought or prayed, “Thank God I’m not like ...” (and you fill in the blank)? We deceive ourselves that we can assume a measure of superiority over other people. In our parable it was a religious leader thanking God that he was not like someone else who had come to pray. We can so easily pray, “Thank God I’m not like ...” (fill in a particular religious doctrine or a dubious profession). Such thoughts are a distortion of reality. Just like a crazy person in a mental institution, who believes he is Napoleon, we like to imagine that we are superior to others because of an incomplete comparison. Self-righteousness is a fool’s paradise. If we define our own sense of self-worth by the faults of others, we are living a delusion. We are running from our own faults.
How to be a popular preacher (vs. 9-12)
If we want to be popular preachers, there is a very simple formula in Luke 18. Tell people to be confident in their own righteousness and that they deserve honor above others. Flatter them that they are not like other people, extortioners, adulterers, evildoers or even others who pray with them. Beguile them that they are the best people in the best nation on earth. Let them them believe that their religious deeds and offerings have granted them God’s favor. All this boot-licking flattery will cause them misery in the end, but you want to be popular don’t you? Telling people to ask God for mercy on our many shortcomings will not get you popularity, but you will be doing your job, as long as you realize that you are also in need of our Father in heaven’s forgiveness.
How to be self-righteous (vs. 11-12)
How can we be self-righteous? If we want to be holier-than-thou, we don’t have to go far for an excuse. Reasons to be conceited are many. Self-importance divides and separates us. We don’t really need to have a very large list of imagined superior attributes. We can ignore our many faults and choose a few traits where we feel exceptional and tell others including God about it. Could we imagine that we are superior in giving? Can we choose an expression of faith which we believe we perform more diligently? What if we accuse others of breaking various laws or denigrate their profession? When we allow a superior attitude to possess our souls, we tend to view others in harsh terms. And just like the Pharisee, none of our self-righteous bragging makes us right with God.
Close to God yet far away (vs. 11-12)
What a contradiction — close to God yet far away! How could this happen? The Pharisee in our parable had possibly spent a lifetime learning about God. He had dedicated his life to the pursuit of holiness. Yet, what had all this produced? He had become confident in his own righteousness. He compared himself to those who had not been so zealous for right living and felt like he was superior. He fasted twice a week, a practice copied by some very dedicated Christians. He tithed on everything, not just the Old Testament requirement to tithe on profits. He was a spiritual super hero, at least in his own mind. Yet he forgot one thing. To God all our good deeds do not clean up a filthy act (Isaiah 64:6). Humility about our filthy state does impress him.
Reformation Self-Righteousness (vs. 14)
The Pharisees were reformers of their day and they exhibited a trait which should warn any reformer: self-righteousness. Every society is always in need of fundamental reform. Whether it is the traditions and disciplines which stand as roadblocks to the Gospel, or the doctrines which are faulty, there is always an underlying need for improvement. There are also large dangers in reformation. Those ahead of the curve can easily believe that they are superior to those behind and vice versa. This easily causes unnecessary division. A self-righteousness inevitably sets in on both sides of a reformation dividing those who see no need to change from those who do. Today’s reformers will become tomorrow’s conservatives as they seek to preserve what they have reformed. The fact is that sin taints both traditionalists and reformers. We are all faulty.
Self-Justified or God-Justified (vs. 14)
We might think that a devout believer is justified by God and a scoundrel cannot be. However, as Luke 18 reveals, the opposite can be true. A temptation for believers is to compare ourselves to people rather than to God. It is easy to find people who have done wrong. When we compare ourselves with others, we are actually justifying ourselves. With God, no amount of self-justification will work, because we have all failed to measure up to his high standards of perfection. The abject sinner has an advantage. He has exhausted his efforts for self-justification and found out the hard way that it simply does not work. He fails miserably by both human and divine standards and has no delusions about himself. We all have only one hope, confessing our faults and being justified by God not self.
Judging the judgmental
There is a lot said today about being non-judgmental, but even that is a judgment. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14 are we invited to judge the judgmental religious leader? Is that a contradiction? His smug attitude towards the sinful publican seems to be an object lesson for us. Being completely non-judgmental is impossible. Are there not two kinds of judgment, right and wrong? So as we look at the smug religious leader what kind of attitude do we see within ourselves? Are we smug about not being smug, self-righteous about not being self-righteous, or judgmental about not being judgmental? Does looking at the faults of any fellow human being make us more humble or more arrogant? Religion can make us more arrogant, but it is supposed to help us become more humble.
None of us measures up to God’s righteousness. Yet, if we confess our sins, he is willing to forgive. Are we willing to confess our sins to him?