An optical illusion is something that appears to be different than it actually is: stationary lines appear to be moving, lines of equal length appear to be unequal, and something flat appears to have depth. Magicians rely on creating an illusion through misdirection and sleight of hand. Things are not always what they seem to be.
If you listen to news reports after someone is arrested for some serious offense the neighbors of the person are often shocked. They say, “He was such a nice guy”, or “he was a good neighbor”. Things were not what they seem.
This morning Jesus tells a story that in many ways is an optical illusion. The way things appear is not really the way things are. Jesus drew a contrast between two people. One looks good, the other does not. One seems to be in touch with God, the other does not. Jesus points out that what we think is true, is actually the opposite of what is true.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:
Luke tells us that Jesus directed His parable to people characterized by two qualities: they were confident of their own righteousness (they thought they were people in good standing with God)’ and they looked down on, or felt superior, to others. In Jesus’ parable the Pharisee is just such a person.
He Prayed About (or to) himself
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
The setting is the temple courts. The Pharisee came in, took his usual spot, and began to pray quite impressively. Jesus immediately shows us the man’s flaw. “He prayed about himself”. This Pharisee was confident in his relationship with God because he was quite an outstanding fellow. He was not really praying to God; he was playing to the crowd. This man’s concern for going to the temple was for everyone to see how good and how holy he was. He was not concerned about meeting God . . . he was concerned that others get the chance to meet him! This man was doing his duty as he always did and felt that God was certainly proud of him for doing so.
Don’t get me wrong, this man did good things. The law stated that a person should fast one day a year on the Day of Atonement. This man fasted twice a week. This man not only tithed his paycheck but tithed his harvest, his side jobs, his dividends, bonus checks, and even the proceeds of his yard sale. He knew the rituals and had memorized all the important stuff. He looked good on the outside but was actually dead on the inside . . . he just didn’t know it. When this man came to prayer He didn’t seek God . . . he promoted himself! He recites his resume!
This man is not unique. There are many people who believe they will be received by God because they are “good people”. They recite how they have helped others, their community service, their church membership, the position they hold. They take great satisfaction in the money they have donated, and the awards they have been given. They look at their resume and believe God would certainly want someone like them in His Kingdom.
Such people, like this Pharisee wanted to be seen, not changed. He wanted his conscience quieted; he wasn’t looking for transformation. He wanted to feel good about who he was and wanted everyone else to feel the same way.
He compared himself to others
Second, notice that the man compared himself to others. This is what you have to do to feel good about your own life. It’s simple: find someone who is having more trouble or appears to be worse than you and compare yourself to that person. You will feel righteous and holy by comparison. Notice to whom the Pharisee compared himself. “He is not like the robber, evil-doers and adulterers…or even the tax-collector (who was universally hated).” Today he might say, “I am not a murderer, rapist, or terrorist. I have been faithful to my spouse, I don’t take government handouts, and I don’t cheat on my taxes”. By these standards he looks good.
However, if you compare yourself to the standard of God’s Law, if you compare yourself to Christ, if you compare yourself even to the saints in other parts of the world who serve Christ in the midst of suffering and poverty it doesn’t usually work. The Lord examines the heart. He calls us to be holy in our attitudes as well as our actions. He is addresses our lack of forgiveness, our indifference to those who hurt, our self-absorption, our idolatry (even in socially acceptable practices). The Lord calls us to honor God all the time and in every way. If we measure ourselves by this standard we don’t fare well at all. That’s why we choose to measure each other by each other.
It is this self-righteousness that makes it difficult to reach the world around us. We have a tendency to come across as if we were saying, “Come to Jesus so you can be more like me!” That is foolish and offensive. No one likes to be viewed as if they “don’t measure up”. Maybe you felt you never measured up to your parents expectations. Maybe you feel you don’t measure up to your brother or sister. Maybe you feel you don’t measure up to the other people at your place of employment. Do you enjoy that feeling? I know I don’t.
Self-righteousness is a poison like carbon monoxide. It is often unrecognized and deadly. Self-righteous people alienate others with their “superiority”.
The Tax Collector
The Pharisee is not the only one present. There is also the tax-collector.
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
While the Pharisee was on the platform performing . . . this man was in the back feeling very unworthy to approach the Lord of Life. The Pharisee looked upward and trumpeted his own goodness; the tax-collector kept his eyes low (in shame) and beat on his chest in a sign of anguish and sorrow. The Pharisee felt he deserved God’s blessing, the tax-collector knew he had no right to ask God for anything. The tax-collector “threw himself on the mercy of the court”. He knew his only hope was for God to extend mercy and grace to him.
I wonder what brought this tax-collector to the temple. He knew that people hated him (they hated all tax-collectors . . . much like we do today). Was he going through a crisis? Was he tired of the fierce treadmill to nothingness? My guess is that this man had run out of excuses and justifications for his life. Perhaps he had spent his life excusing his behavior saying,
- “It’s just the way I am”
- “A man has to make a living”
- “I’m not really hurting anybody”
- “You just don’t understand the pressure I’m under”
His excuses kept guilt away for a long time but now he saw them for what they were: empty attempts to avoid the truth. This tax-collector’s life was empty. He was far from God and the only thing he knew to do was come to the temple (where God was said to dwell) and beg for God to show him mercy.
An Unexpected Conclusion
If Jesus had stopped here our conclusions might have been very different. It would have been tempting to think the Pharisee was an upstanding believer (even if we really didn’t like him). We may have concluded that this is the kind of man God wants us all to be.
We may have overheard the muffled prayer of the tax-collector and concluded, “Yeah, right! God is not going to listen to you.” We like to think that we would never be so crass as to say such a thing. Yet how many times have we seen someone come into our own church and asked, “What are they doing here?”
This however isn’t where the story ends. Jesus is about to expose the illusion and explode our stereotypes.
14 “I tell you that this man (the tax-collector), rather than the other (the Pharisee), went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Any time Jesus begins a statement with the words, “I tell you” or “but I say to you” it usually means He is going to draw an unexpected conclusion. Jesus stunned the crowd. He said the Pharisee, the self-righteous performer, went home perhaps feeling quite smug and proud of himself. He wanted the applause of men and it is possible that he received it. But that is all he received.
The tax-collector, on the other hand, didn’t receive any applause (or even a warm welcome) yet Jesus said, he was made right (or justified) with God. He was granted forgiveness. He came in as a rebel against God and left as part of the family of God.
The principle is this: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” In other words, you will never see God when you are captivated by the image you see in the mirror. You will never see God until you recognize in a very practical sense that you are NOT God! When we humble ourselves it is more than a posture we adopt (we can also be proud of our humility!) It is an attitude that recognizes that we are sinful people in need of mercy and grace. Paul said, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Paul was applauded and respected by the Christian community. The community recognized that he had a keen insight into the mind of God. However when Paul came before the Lord He did not measure himself by those around him. Instead he looked at the holiness of God and the holy standard of God’s Word and Paul knew that he had offended God greatly by the way he lived his life. It didn’t matter what other people said about Paul. The only thing that mattered was what Christ would say about him on the last day.
Paul was called the apostle of grace because he was so aware of his own need for grace. He was humble because He kept the focus on the Lord and not how he compared to others. This is the humility we need.
I am not advocating we walk around saying “I am no good” as we beat ourselves up over our deficiencies and sin. I’m not saying that we should never acknowledge our strengths or blessings. What I am saying, what JESUS is saying is, we cannot begin to build our life in Him until we recognize that we cannot build our life apart from Him. We must see our own sin clearly and face it squarely. Only then will we be able to truly cry out to the Lord, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Take Home Points
Let’s be really practical by drawing some conclusions:
First, Hear the Good News God does not expect us to be perfect before we come to Him. He knows we are flawed people and He is willing to take us as we are and begin the process of leading us in the direction of healing and new life. You don’t have to “be better” before you can come to Him; you simply need to want to change and be willing to trust Him for salvation and new life.
What does it take to be justified or made right with God? Let’s be as clear as possible:
- We must acknowledge that we do not deserve anything from God. We must see that we are headed in the wrong direction.
- We must confess our sinful attitude before God with true sorrow. In other words we must apologize for pushing Him away for so long.
- We must embrace Christ as our only hope; We must recognize that only He can save us and we must put our trust in His work rather than ours.
- We must follow. Action shows genuine trust. To say we trust Christ and refuse to do what He says reveals that we don’t really trust Him at all.
So my question is simple: have you embraced the good news?
Second, If we want to be right with God we must check our attitude. If you want to be right with God you need to compare yourself to God’s Word rather than your neighbor. Sadly, there is a part of us that feels a twinge of delight when someone prominent falls into sin because it makes us feel like we are obviously a better person than the person who fell. Isn’t that a dreadful thought if we dare to admit this to ourselves? We rejoice in the failures of others because it makes us look better by comparison! We should repent of such thinking.
God calls us to put Him before everything and everyone else. When we do not do so we dishonor Him and thus sin. When we refuse to do what He tells us to we sin. When we refuse to forgive, refuse to love, refuse to care, and refuse to repent we are clinging to sin rather than the Lord. We are sinners in need of grace.
As we consider our own need for mercy and grace we will pray more compassionately for those who sin around us. Stop and consider that if a few circumstances were different we might be the one who was arrested, caught in an adulterous relationship, responsible for a tragic death, divorced, attracted to people of the same gender or had a child out of wedlock. This reality should not make us soft on sin but should make us humbly grateful for mercy and grace. It should also make us more compassionate.
Third, we must beware of performing rather than worshipping. It is easy to “play the game”. We learn the songs, the postures, the things to say. We can play the part and deceive others. We can even deceive ourselves. It is good to evaluate why we do what we do.
- Do you sing (or not sing) because you want others to hear you or are you singing to the Lord?
- Are you serving to “earn points” or to “fulfill some obligation” or are you serving the Lord?
- Are you merely absorbing information about Christ or are you allowing that information to change who you are and what you do?
- Are you praying to fulfill an obligation or to impress others or are you talking to the Lord of Life?
- Do you view others in terms of what they can do for you or do you love others because God loves them?
The battle for spiritual sincerity and genuineness is one we must pursue constantly. We spend so much time trying to prove to people that we are valuable, likable, smart, witty and capable. It’s natural. The result is a pretend faith rather than a genuine relationship. We can be honest about our struggles and our need for His help. We don’t have to become someone different when we come to church. We can come honestly knowing that God loves the “real” us.
Finally, we should gladly invite others into His presence. Rather than looking down our nose at others, we should be people who, having received God’s undeserved mercy, are eager to invite others to know that same mercy and grace.
The chance to present the good news of Jesus to other people should make us feel like those who can’t wait for someone to open the gift they purchased for them at Christmas. Think about some special gift you purchased or made for someone you love. Maybe it is a diamond or even something, as a child, you made in school. Whatever the gift it is specially chosen and you believe (or hope) it is something that will leave the recipient stunned. You believe it conveys the love you have for that person. As gifts start to be opened you wait for them to open your gift. You can’t help smiling as begin opening the gift, you watch carefully, expectantly, excitedly. You watch their face and focus on their response yearning to share in their delight.
That’s the way we should approach others with the gospel. The message of Christ is not a club with which to beat people; it is an incredible gift that can delight and change people. The people who feel they deserve it the least are the ones who embrace it most joyfully.
Do you know a tax-collector in your life? Do you know someone who feels so undeserving that they feel they are too far gone to be loved by God? If so, you have the opportunity for great delight. Tell them this very story. Give them the gift that is better than any gift they could ever expect, and then stand back and watch carefully because you may see a life transformed before your very eyes. It will be a transformation that is no illusion. It is not a trick. It is God’s grace. It is real and it is amazing.