I’d like to begin by directing your attention to the parable of the Pharisee & the tax collector, which can be found in Luke 18:9-14. Although this parable is well-known in religious circles, many often walk away from this parable with a false and very dangerous assumption.
“Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In this parable, we see a contrast between two men: the Pharisee and the tax collector. While the Pharisee exuded arrogance unbecoming of any child of God, the tax collector freely acknowledged his shortcomings and humbly sought God’s mercy. The Pharisee in this parable was condemned by Jesus. The tax collector went home “justified.”
Many read this parable and conclude that all of us fall into one of two categories. Either we are arrogant and self-righteous like the Pharisee or we are humble like the tax collector. Either we boast about our good works and see ourselves as better than everyone else (the Pharisee), or we beat ourselves up and see ourselves as nothing but perpetual sinners and failures (the tax collector). Remember, this parable was intended, not to degrade righteous people, but to humble self-righteous people (vs. 9). Thus, the tax collector is not being held up as a model for us; he is being used to further enrich and deepen the ugliness of arrogance in religion by way of contrast.
To put it another way, Jesus isn’t saying that we must always carry with us a self-defeating attitude, and that if we don’t, we must be self-righteous like the Pharisee. He’s simply telling us not to be self-righteous like the Pharisee.
That’s the point of the parable. Consider with me the following statements and tell me which category these statements fall into; do these statements reflect (a) self-righteousness (like the Pharisee), or (b) the self-defeating attitude many impose upon the tax collector?
“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:4).
“Therefore let us, as many as are mature (perfect in the KJV), have this in mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you” (Phil. 3:15).