An Alien and Undeserved Righteousness

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.” – Luke 18:9-14 ESV

With His telling of the parable of the unrighteous judge, it appears that Jesus was taking a bit of a diversion from discussing the shortcomings of the Pharisees. But in many ways, the parable was just another in a long line of stinging indictments of these self-righteous men who had made a god out of their religion. While Jesus has begun to focus His attention on His disciples in an attempt to prepare them for what lies ahead, He has not stopped exposing the arrogant and uncaring nature of the Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders.

In His previous parable, Jesus told the story of “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man” (Luke 18:2 ESV). This man, by virtue of his role, was meant to be an unbiased arbiter, settling disputes between two parties. But how could he do so if he “neither feared God nor respected man?” And this man’s presence in the story was meant to reflect the attitude of the Jewish religious leaders. According to Jesus, they were guilty of the same thing. And by using the term “judge,” Jesus was not offering them a compliment. The Outline of Biblical Usage describes a judge as “one who passes or arrogates to himself, judgment on anything.”

The Pharisees were quick to judge, condemning others for their lack of religious zeal and their failure to keep all the man-made rules and regulations they had appended to the Mosaic Law. At one point Jesus had delivered a strong word of warning against these men.

“…what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT

They had become self-appointed judges of the people who feared no repercussions from God. In fact, they actually thought they were doing God a favor by holding the people to such high moral and ethical standards. But like the widow in the parable, the poor and disenfranchised of Israel were longing for justice. They were seeking a judge who would act righteously and deliver justice on their behalf.

Consider closely verse 9 of this chapter. Luke records that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). It seems obvious that Jesus was focusing His attention of the Pharisees who were still lingering on the edges of the crowd that followed Him. Despite all He had said against them, they had not gone anywhere. But Jesus was not just addressing the Pharisees. Their longstanding attitude of spiritual superiority and self-righteousness had infected others.  They had gone out of their way to teach their flawed philosophy of religion to others, something for which Jesus held them accountable.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT

As far as Jesus was concerned, self-righteousness was a dangerous and deadly heresy that led people to rely on their own efforts and merits to earn favor with God. It was a dead-end street that eventually terminated with eternal separation from God. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). The apostle Paul would later quote from the psalms in order to convey the same universal and inescapable reality:

“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.” – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

Self-righteousness is the greatest form of blasphemy because the one who practices it sets himself up as God. He elevates himself to the place of the Almighty, determining his eternal state based on his own biased judgment, rather than that of God. Anyone who believes he has earned a right standing before God has diminished the deadly nature of sin and devalued the righteous standards of God.

There is no way to get around the fact that in order for anyone to consider themselves to be righteous based on their own efforts, they must lower God’s standard for holiness. Which is really diminishing the holiness of God Himself, because He is the ultimate standard by which we are judged. So, rather than using God as the gold standard for holiness, men begin to compare themselves with one another. According to the apostle Paul, this horizontal matrix for measuring holiness is not only flawed but foolish.

…we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! – 2 Corinthians 10:12 NLT

So, in His parable, Jesus relates the story of two men who have gone to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee, an icon of religious rectitude. The other was a tax collector, who represented the spiritual dregs of society. Yet, Jesus places both men in the temple courtyard where they are praying to God. But that is where the similarities end. Jesus portrays the Pharisee as a self-consumed man with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. He stands in the temple courtyard and boldly prays:

“‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

His words are the epitome of arrogance and pride. In a blatant display of self-righteous self-congratulation, he declares his moral superiority to the God of the universe. And he does so by comparing himself to the tax collector who is standing nearby. To the Pharisee, the differences between the two men could not be more obvious. Based on his religious zeal and faithful adherence to the smallest requirement of the law, he holds the moral high ground. He has earned the right to be heard by God.

Yet, Jesus quickly moves the focus from the fictional Pharisee to the tax collector, who “stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow…” (Luke 18:13 NLT). In starks contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector epitomizes humility and a high degree of self-awareness. He knows exactly what he is and what he justly deserves.

“O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” – Luke 18:13 NLT

Fully aware that his sin separates him from a holy God, this man pleads for mercy. He confesses his sinful state and, in a sense, places himself at the mercy of the court. He is more than willing to let the Judge decide his fate but he longs for justice coupled with mercy and forgiveness.

And then, Jesus dropped the bombshell:

I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of Jesus’ statement. He is declaring that the tax collector, a self-admitted sinner, is declared to be righteous by God. This is a judicial act by which God, in His sovereign authority, deems the unrighteous to be righteous in His eyes. The apostle Paul would expand on this marvelous thought in his letter to the believers in Rome.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:21-25 NLT

Jesus was hinting at a reality to come. He was going to go to the cross and offer Himself as the sinless substitute for sinful mankind. And all those who were willing to recognize and confess their sins and place their faith in Him would be imputed His righteousness as a gift from God. Jesus would take on their sin and, in exchange, they would receive His righteousness. But this “great exchange” begins with the sinner’s willingness to confess his desperate need for a Savior. Like the widow who needed a judge to settle her case, sinners are dependent upon the Judge of the universe to rule in their favor. Not based on their own merit, but according to His mercy and grace.

The apostle Paul, who in his former life was a dedicated and zealous Pharisee, offered his radically altered understanding of how one is made right with God.

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

At one time, Paul would have been that self-righteous Pharisee standing in the courtyard singing his own praises. But, mercifully, Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, blinding his eyes, but helping him see for the first time the sin that separated him from a holy God. He went from being a self-righteous Pharisee facing an eternity separated from God to a self-confessing sinner who received the righteousness of Christ and the assurance of eternal life.

So, Jesus wrapped up His little parable with the sobering statement:

“…those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

The apostle Peter would reiterate the words of Jesus in his first letter:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. – 1 Peter 5:5-6 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson