I woke up yesterday morning thinking about the parable of the two men praying in Luke 18. We all know what transpired between a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both were standing when they were praying. The tax collector was standing at a distance, in the background, convicted by an acute sense of unworthiness. But the Pharisee was standing by himself, in the foreground, presumably trying by human effort to close the gap between himself and God. The irony here is that the word “Pharisee” actually comes from the word that means “to separate”. And by standing by himself, away from the people, the Pharisee remained true to form and tradition.
Then comes the prayer. This is the part that irked Jesus most. If we take the declaration of John the Baptist as a guide here, that is, when he said these words concerning the Messiah, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), then the Pharisee’s prayer is a prayer of self-increment. With complete lack of self-awareness, here is his opening salvo, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
At this juncture, it is interesting to note that the first thing listed in Proverbs 6:16-19 that the Lord hates or detests is “haughty eyes.” Yet the Pharisee did not single that out in his prayer. A convenient slip of the mind or an insidious blindside? I guess nothing blinds us more than pride and the pursuit of self-significance. Theologian R.C. Sproul once said that, “We yearn to believe that in some ways we are important. This inner drive is as intense as our need for water and oxygen.” And in the same way that a fish is the last to discover water, so it is with a man obsessed with his own importance (to admit to the same).
In fact, Luke has this to say, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” (Luke 18:9) In the book, Perilous Pursuits written by the President of the Moody Bible Institute, Joseph M. Stowell, the author made this incisive observation, “Significance seekers are unable to serve others unless there is an advantage to be gained, unable to sacrifice to advance a cause that is not their own, unwilling to suffer if necessary for another’s sake, and unable to surrender to any agenda – corporate, family, or church – that impedes the progress of their pursuit of significance.”
But of course, just as fashion and tastes change with time, our pursuit for self-significance has unfortunately taken a more intolerant strain. I guess a modern-day Pharisee’s prayer would go something along these lines:-
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people – homosexuals, lesbians, atheists, secularists, humanists, agnostics, libertarians, godless human-rights advocates, theistic evolutionists, heathen feminists, liberal progressives, fornicators, club-goers, homeless drunks, compulsive masturbators, promiscuous teenagers, worldly artists, harry potter lovers, pagan-holidays celebrants, porno addicts, mindless young groupies, tattooists, indolent beach bums, backsliders, the Thomases, organized-religion haters, the faithless and the disillusioned, militant religious fundamentalists, the jihadists, the rock-music worship-leaders, bing-bling charismatic preachers, end-time cuckoos – or even like that megachurch pastor just across the street who is twisting your word to milk the congregation. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get…(and if I may so cheekily add)…I live my life in strict obedience and uncompromising compliance - without controversy.”
Here, let me share 1 John 1:8 with you, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The way I see this scripture is this, the issue is not about our claim that we are without sin. There is no deception or self-deception there. No right-minded person in this day and age would dare make such sanctimonious claim. Imagine a preacher standing behind the pulpit and proclaiming with fists pumping in the air: “My beloved, I am officially sinless. Praise God!” (Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if the reception to that is a standing ovation …sadly nothing actually surprises me anymore).
No way hosea, that would be too blatant, even shameless. It is now more about proclaiming that by grace (or by faith or by unconditional love…pick your poison), one is above sin. Isn’t that much more digestible, even profoundly enchanting? If everything in this modern age is about projecting an image (putting form before substance), then that proclamation is both mysterious and mystical at the same time. And everybody loves a holy mystic in a Sabbath suit.
There is of course a distinction between claiming that we are without sin and that we are above sin (in essence, however, they are largely the same). The former will invite immediate scorn for obvious reasons while the latter will naturally invite awe and wonders, and god forbid, religious adulation. And this deception no doubt means that the truth is not in us as the scripture so admonishes, but that doesn’t prevent the deluded from peddling the truth so as to deepen the self-deception and perpetuate the mass delusion. Imagine the same preacher standing behind the pulpit and shouting in victory, “Dear beloved, I have overcome. I am now above sin. Amen! God is good!” Short of saying that he is perfect, the congregants will go wild with applause. The scary thing is that I can imagine the Pharisee thinking the exact same thing.
Now, the tax collector on the other hand prayed in complete self-desolation, almost to the degree of self-immolation. His fists pounding his ribcage as he cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This was the same heartbroken admission of unworthiness that Peter, the first and original fisher of men, cried out when he saw Jesus.
Somehow, Jesus has this phenomenal social effect on the people he meets. No one who has been touched by him can still place any value in their own strength and worldly accomplishments. It is just an irresistible and instinctive response when we have a personal encounter with Jesus. We fall flat on our face, strip ourselves of everything we count worthy in the eyes of this world, and stand naked before the one who was once made to be nothing at Calvary for our sake.
More importantly, like the tax collector, we humbly keep our distance from the throne of mercy as we beg for mercy. And our life thereafter, and for as long as we live, demonstrates this inward transformation as we boast about what Jesus has done at Calvary and nothing of ourselves and our deeds. This enduring change in us is in fact infectious and people will be drawn to God for the right reason because of how we live our life. And when they confront their own trials of faith, they will be reminded and empowered by how we live in humility and servitude and will draw strength from the source of it all, that is, a willing and loving Savior who gave everything up in order to gain everything that truly matters for us.
Let me thus end with this pilgrim song of a life truly transformed:-
Living for Jesus a life that is true,
Strive to please Him in all that I do;
Yielding allegiance, glad-hearted and free,
This is the pathway of blessing for me.