Summary: Righteousness is God’s gift to us, not our gift to God.
Two men go to church to pray
First – one of the few, the proud, the chosen – one of the Pharisees
Rules—obeyed; Rituals—observed; Regulations—followed. Religion = Performance
He performed well. He was self-centered, self-serving, and self-righteous.
Sabbath – prayer time. Song of Ascent (Psalms of preparation) – Parade of praise led by the most holy, righteous, religious, and holy. The PHARISEE was at the front of the line.
The Pharisee stood up by himself and prayed about himself.
"Lord, you sure are lucky to have a guy like me on your side."
"I’m not a drunk; I’ve never cheated on my wife, I tithe my income; I always go to church; I maintain the highest standards. I am not like ___________. "
"God, doesn’t it just bless your heart to know that I am not some worthless person. While look at that good-for-nothing tax-collector over there. I am not like HIM."
He was right! By all outward signs, he was whom you would expect to see in church. He was religious. He was always on time for worship. He studied the scriptures religiously. He did all the right things in all the right ways at all the right times because that’s how you earned salvation under the law.
This is a tough thing to say and even tougher to hear, but folks like the Pharisees were nurtured along their path in places like this.
I spoke to a friend named Sam who lamented the preaching of his pastor. He said, “My pastor is always preaching against three things: abortion, gays, and Muslims. Now Bill, I don’t know of any gays in my church. There are certainly no Muslims in my church. I don’t know if any of the woman have had abortions--but I doubt it." He continued: "My pastor is always preaching against the sins of everyone else – but he never speaks out against the sin of people in our church."
"What sins are those?" I asked.
Without hesitation, he replied, “Many of the people in my church are just plain mean. They arrogantly look down their noses at other people. They are full of pride and think that they are better than anyone else!"
These are the kind of people whom Jesus was addressing in this parable. Read verse nine:
"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…"
The Pharisee went into the church feeling righteous because of his behavior, feeling holy because of his performance. “I do not need God, but God sure needs me!”
How does a person get to this place of arrogant pride? It starts by thinking that your behavior earns God’s blessings. If you think God is good to you because of your performance you will start to feel confident in your own righteousness. You will stop trusting in God’s grace and start relying on your personal behavior. You will become increasingly self-dependent, self-sufficient, and self-righteous. From here, you are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from looking down your nose at others who do not "perform" up to your standards.
The Pharisee goes up to pray. He separated himself from the rest of the crowd so as not to even tough those who might be present who were “unclean.” He stood toward the front, raised his head and hands to heaven, and told God how fortunate God was to have a man like him in God’s own corner.
The second man was a tax collector. Tax collectors are worse than bad – especially in that culture because they were traitors against their own people, collecting money for the occupying pagan army of the Roman Empire.
He heard the parade of praise at prayer time and almost did not go. "Nobody is going to like me down at that church,” he said to himself. He was probably right.
Still he went. He was hungry for some kind of connection with the divine. He was yearning to know the gift of forgiveness and hungry for an experience of God’s grace.
He went to the temple at the appointed time for prayer.
He, too, stood off to himself at a distance (in the back) away from the crowd.
He did not raise his head with pride, but lowered it in humility.
He did not seek a "high-five" for his rugged individualism, but beat his chest in sorrow.
He knew he had no hope except in mercy; no salvation apart from grace.
He prayed: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Jesus speaks next, and he says something amazing. “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."
This is a story about two people who went to church to pray!