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How do we get to Heaven? By human effort? By keeping the rules? That works only if we could obey perfectly, which excludes all of us. Occasionally someone comes along who thinks they’re “good enough,” but most of us are all too aware of our imperfections. But even humility has its risks; because we know we’re unworthy, we can be guilty of saying, “Thank God I’m not like a Pharisee!”
Our Lord’s parable is directed towards those who consider themselves righteous and look down on others…but it is also about grace, about God forgiving what He cannot excuse. And so our salvation depends, not on what we can achieve, but on what we are willing to receive. We are not saved by good works but by God’s work.
The true “righteous” person is not someone who flawlessly observes all the “rules”, but someone who begs for mercy and is accepted by God--despite having plenty of human imperfections. To illustrate this, Jesus tells a story of two people who are polar opposites.
The Pharisee of the parable is not confessing his sins but bragging to God about how great he is. The title “Pharisee” means “the separated and undefiled”. The goal of the Pharisees was to remain pure and unstained from the world, but they tended to fall into self-righteousness. This particular Pharisee is touting his resume. He is smug, self-satisfied and believes he is in no need of grace. He doesn’t even need God because his confidence is clearly in himself. In his prayer he’s not asking for anything, except for God to be impressed with his vast accomplishments. He arrogantly takes all the credit for his conduct. He compares himself with others and he’s quite satisfied. He congratulates himself for his uprightness…and he’s wondering how this tax collector has dared to enter and defile the Temple. He thinks he can get away with having contempt on people like the tax collector. Righteous acts without compassion are not considered righteous by God.
The tax collector doesn’t need the Pharisee’s help in pointing out his sin; he harbors no illusions about himself. Employed by the pagan Roman government, and known for taking bribes, tax collectors were outcasts and regarded as traitors. They were so reviled and distrusted that they weren’t permitted to serve as witnesses in court. And so the tax collector of the parable has no claim on God’s favor. So what’s this loathsome sinner doing here? Getting what even a Pharisee needs--God’s mercy.
Jesus once told His followers that their righteousness must exceed even that of the Pharisees, and they responded in dismay that no one could ever be that holy. Jesus was setting the bar high. My point is that the average person was impressed with the Pharisees. They were popular and respected. Their approval rating was high. They were renown for their love of the Law of Moses and their scrupulous efforts to obey God, going way beyond the requirements of the Law. And so this parable goes against the popular view of righteousness.
The Pharisee saw God as a scorekeeper…”So long as I keep the rules, I’m OK.
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