Finding Your Righteousness In Jesus
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Are You Self-Righteous?
Luke 18 is a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The self-righteous Pharisee stood in the midst of the temple to thank God that he is a law-keeper unlike the many sinners around him. Meanwhile, the tax collector couldn’t muster the courage to walk into the temple for fear of being seen. Instead, he stands in the distance, then falls on his knees and begs God for mercy.
When we read this story, we like to wag our finger at the proud Pharisee as we seek to identify ourselves with the humble protagonist. But here’s the problem with that…
You are Self-Righteous
No one likes to hear that because no one likes to consider themselves self-righteous. But the reality is that we are all self-righteous at our core. Self-righteous pharisees take various forms. From the purest-looking churchman to the drugged-out streetwalker, all of us concoct daily versions of ourselves to defend our sense of righteousness.
To be righteous simply means to be morally right or justifiable. We want to justify our thoughts and actions as right and good. This God-given desire was meant to press us into repentance and a dependence on the righteousness of Christ. But that doesn’t happen naturally.
Our attempts at self-righteousness play out in two very different and dangerous ways.
1. The Pharisee as Clean-Cut Rule Follower
This describes many of my Christian friends, and sadly it often describes me. This individual takes personal satisfaction in his own spiritual resume. He has a lofty view of himself and his relatively clean slate, which seems to position him safely on God’s side. From this lofty perch, he feels the liberty to look down on others who don’t follow the rules quite as well. Of course, this kind of person would never vocalize these prideful feelings. But the rule follower secretly loves to spy out the poor judgment of others because it gives him a sense of moral high ground. This person views the social media posts of his distant friends, and secretly thinks, “See God, I’m not one of those people.” He wags a sanctimonious finger all the while enjoying the thought that God and him are tight because he keeps the rules. This person finds righteousness in the certainty of his own good behavior.
2. The Open-Minded Rule Snubber
This describes many in our culture today, especially Gen X’ers and Millennials. This individual takes satisfaction in his own sense of moral uncertainty. In the eyes of this person, the biggest sin we can commit is to consider anyone seriously sinful. Moral ambiguity is his only certainty. This person seeks to justify himself by embracing the modern age of tolerance while turning a self-righteous cold shoulder to anyone who would question the legitimacy of a God with laws. This person finds a strange sense of satisfaction when they watch rule-followers become moral failures. He loves to see zealots fall from grace, and he especially enjoys calling out hypocrites because it justifies his own uncertainty of the law of God. This person finds his righteousness in the uncertainty of the law, while ironically judging others with the harsh law of superficial tolerance.
Jesus Speaks to Both of These
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus calls out both of these modern-day pharisees. The clean-cut rule follower must see his pride for what it really is, a rejection of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. While the open-minded rule snubber must humbly accept the reality of God’s law. We can neither keep the law perfectly nor ignore it. We must come to God like that tax collector, fully aware of the law and painfully aware of our sins against it. Only then can we see our real need for the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.
Written by Jon Wood - Core Team Member