Jesus once told a parable about folks who were confident that their good deeds impressed God; these people scorned everyone else. They viewed themselves as righteous and others as wicked. In this parable, which is a short story used to illustrate a truth, Jesus has two characters: a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee was a member of a Jewish group of that day who were some of the most fastidious at obeying the laws of the Jews. Many went to extremes so they would be sure to be obedient.
The tax collectors were also Jews, but were those who worked for the Roman government collecting taxes. The Romans had conquered the land of Israel and oppressed the Jews. The tax collectors were considered traitors who took more money than necessary to line their own pockets. To say they were despised by the Jews would be an understatement.
The parable goes like this: “Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: ‘Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people — cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 (NLT)
In this story, Jesus defines for us what righteousness is. True righteousness begins with a broken heart that relies only on the mercy of God. Righteousness without a broken heart is self-righteousness. Jesus took great pains to explain that real righteousness begins in the heart. Too often people of that day, like they do also today, look at the activities that people do, instead of the motivations of the heart. By this parable, Jesus taught us that we can do good things, and they are good things, but still lack the most essential ingredient: humility before God. It is this humility before God that causes us to cry out for mercy, and depend on God’s kindness for acceptance.
How do you pray? May we all ask God for that broken heart that will allow us to find acceptance with God.
The Rev. Steven Ganz is pastor of Clover Pass Community Church.
Perspectives is a regular column sponsored and written by members of the Ketchikan Ministerial Association.