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.”
One of the seemingly key tenets of our society is the need for personal worth. We all want to feel valued. We all want to feel important. We all want to be an essential ‘gear in the machine’, without which, the whole thing will just come grinding to a halt. Some of us with lower expectations just hope that if we were to not be around, the machine runs so bad we are missed immediately.
I wonder if this is part of our society and upbringing, or has been part of mankind since the fall. No matter which, for almost everyone the desire to be important is strong.
And so, we look for ways to be important, even in the context of the church. We proclaim 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is a ‘body’ and everyone needs to function for it to work, enhancing our personal worth. We sing songs that proclaim that had we been the only person alive, Jesus would have died just for us. We exalt our own personal worth before others, and even before God – because that is what makes us feel great.
Be honest – who would you prefer to be around? Friends who constantly tell you how useless and replaceable you are, or those who compliment you and show how important you are to them?
Lets take a look then at the Parable Jesus told. There were two people.
One, a religious leader, who comes before God, knowing full well his perceived value, and willing to remind God of it. I did this. I do that. I don’t just tithe, I double tithe, even of the smallest things. Just a reminder God, I AM your servant, and I can prove it.
And then comes the tax collector. Not only a sinner, but one who has seemingly even betrayed his people, the Jews, by collecting taxes from them for their oppressors – Rome. In context, this is the guy who probably saw financial advantage in working with the conquerors, at the expense of his own people. It would be natural in any oppressed society to look down on such a person. And yet, he comes before God with full knowledge of who he is. Nothing. Worse than nothing, he is a sinner against God, and a sinner against his own people.
And yet what does Jesus say? In this mans honesty he is recognized before God and justified. Before God he is not important, he is not needed – and he knows it. And yet he comes anyway.
He comes before God because there is something else here as well we don’t want to miss. Before God, he is valued.
In the time just before Jesus, John was baptizing people. These people were coming to him, publicly confessing their sins, and being baptized. They all knew they were sinners, and took action when John preached repentance.
But there was also a second group – the religious leaders. John’s reaction to them is quite vitriolic – he is not impressed. All I can think is they weren’t coming to repent of their sins, but to ‘have a look’ and see what was happening. They didn’t think themselves sinners, in need of public repentance and baptism. They thought themselves righteous before God.
And did John have some words for them – there is more if you want to read the full context in your own Bible.
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
If they were truly repentant, humble before God, they would ‘bear fruit’ of that repentance. Their lives would be changed. They would be desiring mercy – not sacrifice. And they would have been looking forward to the Messiah, not getting annoyed an ‘upstart preacher’ was causing a stir and planning to have Him killed.
So examine yourself – what is your real attitude? Do you come before God, in full knowledge of how important you think you are, or in real knowledge of how sinful you really are? Don’t worry, we all do it. I know I have come before God in the past, very pleased with myself for some reason – be it something I have given to, worked for, or done. I have done God’s work, and now I want to sit back and reap ‘the rewards of the righteous’.
Yes, there are rewards. Yes, there is praise. Yes, there is value in doing the right thing before God. But never forget who you really are – a sinner who lives daily by the grace of God. Here on this earth for a time and a reason, and only right before God because of His grace and work on the cross.