Have you ever met someone who “thought more highly of themselves than they ought”? We all know someone who is conceited, arrogant, braggadocios, and perhaps even narcissistic. They are in our family, in our workplaces, and in our church. On the one hand, it is good to have a certain measure of self-confidence and a healthy dose of self-esteem. But folks who carry that to a new level and think they are better than everyone else are hard to take.
Jesus had the same problem. In a wonderful parable told in the book of Luke, Jesus calls out the showy and self-absorbed Pharisees:
Luke 18 (The Message)
9-12 He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’
First, we have to admire Eugene Peterson’s choice of words in The Message. I laughed out loud at the phrases, “complacently pleased,” “looked down their noses,” and the notion that the Pharisee “posed” to pray. What vivid pictures these words conjure up! We get an image of a totally insufferable religious hypocrite.
Next, Jesus introduced a tax man as the foil to the puffed-up Pharisee. This meant a lot to the hearers of this story, because tax men of the time were the lowest form of humanity, the dredge of society, and the dirtiest scoundrels around. Like politicians, some might say.
13 “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
14 Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
So, the folks listening to the story were shocked that the tax man was the hero of the tale, and the religious man was the villain.
Jesus’ point here was the level of humble sincerity we must bring to the altar. When the tax man asked for mercy and forgiveness, acknowledging that he was a sinner, he was speaking for all of us. We are that man slumped in the shadows with our faces in our hands. That is where God meets us with his saving grace.
The show-off went home not being made right with God because the show-off couldn’t be honest about his sin. Even though he ticked the boxes of tithing and praying, his heart was insincere, and his offering was shallow.
God desires more from us. He invites us to “simply be ourselves.” What does that say to you today? We can boldly come to his throne just as we are, without one plea, and be forgiven. That level of honesty with God is all that is required to be made right. Where is God calling you to come clean and be real? It’s time to come home.
Looking for a new devotional book? Psalms by the Sea makes a great Christmas present.