And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
Jesus knew His audience, so it was fitting that He uses a Pharisee and a publican, as it rings so true to the reality of the day and the interactions He and His disciples had had with the Pharisees so far. The self-righteous Pharisee would exalt himself and his deeds. His prayer was all about himself and what he did or didn’t do. He looked at those around him and judged himself more righteous than they, better than them and perhaps even more favored by God than them. The publican, on the other hand, realizes that he can rely on nothing other than the mercy of God. The Pharisee looks at himself and fails to see his own lack of righteousness, but the publican looks at God and sees that he has no righteousness of his own.
We can be proud even in prayer, so we must be careful to come before the Lord with a humble heart. We must, like the publican, see ourselves for who we really are, comparing ourselves not to those around us, but to the standard of righteousness that God has set. If we judge ourselves based on how we compare to others, we’ll always be able to find someone who has messed up more than we have or done less good than we think we have. But that only produces a false sense of who we are and feeds into our prideful heart. We must know the truth about who we are as we stand before God.
But ultimately, it’s not about us and what we do or don’t do, but what Jesus did for us and the mercy of God toward us. Instead of focusing so much on all of our accomplishments and the things we have done, let us concentrate on who the Lord is and what He has done and how He is working. It’s not works, but God’s mercy that saves and forgives. It’s not our efforts, but His completed work that changes us. It’s not our strength, but it’s His Spirit working in us that allows us to do good for His honor and glory.
Are we trusting in ourselves, thinking that we are righteous, or do we trust only in the sacrifice of our righteous Lord? Any good that we do can be so contaminated by pride or wrong attitudes or sinful motives. The heart within is wicked. But with Jesus’ blood applied, our hearts are made new and our efforts can be acceptable in His sight. So let’s come before the Lord with a humble heart, willing to see any sin that He would reveal there so that we may be made right before Him. Let’s not judge ourselves as superior to others, but be thankful that God was merciful to us and forgave us our own multitude of sins.