The Greatness of Humility
by Paul Goebel
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘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.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18: 9-14 | The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
William James, the father of American Psychology, wrote, “Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in human egotism.” One of the most common arguments against religion is that it is arrogant and prideful and above all else, self-righteous. Indeed it is self-righteousness that many in the community of intellectualism and popular culture find synonymous with religion. And in the mind of the critic, this self-righteousness makes religion hypocritical. But what makes religion so hypocritical is not that its followers claim morality and yet go on sinning. What makes religion hypocritical is that its followers refuse to admit that they continue to sin. This is the epitome of pride. This is the ultimate in arrogance. This is the essence of what it means to trust in one’s own self-righteousness. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is radically opposed to self-righteousness. In fact, it could be said that the chief enemy of the Gospel is pride. In Luke’s Gospel, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a definitive indictment against the evils of self-righteousness and a revelation of God’s gracious heart for the humble. In this parable, Jesus paints a starkly contrasting picture of pride and humility by telling a story about the prayers of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. Not only does Jesus give us a potent picture of self-righteousness and humility, but he also gives us rare insight into the radical nature of the Gospel. Jesus’ final verdict of justification makes the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14) one of the most tangible displays of the Gospel in all the parables.
Jesus begins his parable with an introduction of two men: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The people and the place of this parable are significant in two ways. First, the temple in Jerusalem was a place of prayer. Second, the temple in Jerusalem was a place of deep cultural polarization. The temple was a place that assumed deep cultural and religious distinctions between Pharisees and tax collectors. The Pharisee’s prayer is found in verses 11-12: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” It is important that we do not read the Pharisee’s prayer through New Testament eyes. The Pharisees were a dominant figure in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 5:17) and certainly a dominant figure in 1st century Judaism. For a Jew to hear the Pharisee’s prayer would not have instantly conjured images of pride and arrogance. Luke’s original audience would have seen a model prayer from a pious man. At first glance, it would appear that the Pharisee is in fact genuinely grateful to God for all his accomplishments (fasting twice a week and tithing). But, as the parable unfolds so does the pride of the Pharisee’s prayer, and his self-righteousness is exposed. Like the ones “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised everyone else” (v. 9) the Pharisee shows very little compassion for his fellow man. He dismisses the Tax Collector as a filthy sinner, along with the “extortionists, unrighteous people, and adulterers” (v.11). In fact he dismisses all “other men” as nothing more than sinners. Full of righteousness in himself, the Pharisee lacks any real love for others, and ultimately any real love for God.
The prayer of the Tax Collector appears next in verse 13: “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!’” As prominent as the Pharisees were in Luke’s Gospel, the tax collectors were certainly characterized throughout. In this 1st century context, the Tax Collector of this parable was understood as a low-life. This unfavorable distinction may have contributed to the Tax Collector taking his place in the temple by “standing far off.” What is more, the Tax Collector’s posture is one of extreme sorrow as he “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven.” His penitent posture is further accentuated by the “beating of his breast,” an action of genuine heartfelt repentance. The prayer of the Tax Collector is short but powerful as it mirrors the opening words of David’s confession in Psalm 51: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Rather than suggest that he is righteous, the Tax Collector declares that he is a sinner. And rather than assume he is justified, he begs God for mercy. In the end we are left with a stark contrast between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that is quite different than the one we had at the parable’s opening. The original distinction between piety and sinner is beginning to unravel. The Tax Collector’s brokenness has been pitted against the Pharisee’s merit. His humility against the Pharisee’s pride.
Jesus gives the final verdict: “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.” In a shocking reversal of roles, Jesus declares that it is the Tax Collector who “went down to his house justified,” not the Pharisee. In the Greek, the word “justified” is used passively, showing that it is God who does the justifying, not men. It is God who considers the Tax Collector righteous based on his divine mercy, not human merit. The last phrase in the parable “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” is the final capstone contrasting pride and humility. It is the ultimate reversal of values, illustrated tangibly in lives of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus makes the radical statement that righteousness is found only by the mercy of God, not by the merits of human piety. Only those who approach the throne as humble sinners in need of mercy receive the gift of mercy. Those who approach the throne boasting in their own self-righteousness find themselves as enemies of the Gospel. In his book, Humility: True Greatness, C.J. Mahaney defines pride in this way: “Pride is when sinful human beings aspire to the status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon him.” In many ways this is the message of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Pride is playing God. It is putting oneself in the position of judge and king, believing oneself to be moral and self-sufficient apart from God. Humility is acknowledging our supreme need of God’s redemptive grace. In knowing our utter dependence on the Gospel, we become friends of God though the sovereign mercy of Jesus Christ.