From today’s reading of Luke 17:11 – 18:14
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.” – Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)
The natural human condition, in our fallen state, is one of competition and comparison. The sin of comparison and self-exaltation is a sin that is easy to miss or dismiss in our culture, but it is among the most deadly sins. We live in a society that runs on the fuel of covetousness. Just watch a few minutes of TV and you’ll see what I mean. Every ad screams at you about what you don’t have, what you need that you didn’t know you needed, or what they have that you must have, and that you must not rest until you have it. At the time of this writing there is a Sprint commercial making the rounds that literally features women screaming about getting an iPhone 6 (really, that’s about the extent of the commercial . . . women screaming).
Did you catch the deadly mistake made by the Pharisee above? “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.”. An entire prayer, comparing himself to other men. I’m sure the Pharisee would beat me in external holiness. I have no doubt that he was honest, that he was just, faithful to his wife, generous, etc. He was a good guy.
The problem of the Pharisee is one of comparison; the path of least resistance in our natural fallen state is to compare ourselves to others. That’s easy. The comparison that our souls run from in terror is the comparison to God. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” is an exercise in missing the point. Plus it is untrue. This man is like other men; a sinner desperately in need of a Savior. All the external holiness in the world is mere window dressing around the cracked and dirty panes of our lives.
The tax collector chose wisely. His prayer is one of comparison also, but it is a comparison between who he is and who God is. He agrees with God that he is a sinner and appeals to the throne of Mercy.
Turning our eyes upon Jesus results in the abolition of all the silly ideas of topping our fellow men and women in righteousness. That is a game we may “win” in the eyes of the world but that we will ultimately lose when engulfed in the holiness of God. Looking to Jesus will overwhelm us with our need for him, because the more we see him as he is, the more we see our own desperate state. And that is the path toward fulfilling the destiny he has for his children: to become like Jesus.
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 (ESV)