Self-confidence can be a dangerous thing. One of my old friends wasn’t used to cycling long distances but announced one morning that he was going to do a bike ride of over 100 miles. We advised him to build up to it but he wouldn’t listen. We asked him if he had eaten enough and had enough food and water with him, but he was confident he was able to complete the journey. He was wrong. After 15 miles he went hypoglycaemic, fell off his bike, and ended up in A and E. He had confidence, but it was a misplaced confidence. It was a false confidence. In his pride he refused to listen to others, and had an inflated opinion of his own abilities. It was dangerous.
Is he alone? Isn’t it the case that we have all, at times, thought too highly of ourselves and our abilities? When it comes to our relationship with God, thinking too highly of ourselves is not just dangerous but deadly. Spiritual pride can be found in all of our hearts.
There are many church-goers today who are confident that they might not be perfect, but are good people, and that God is pleased with them and will surely let them into Heaven when they die. This is tragic, because it is a false confidence. They think that they can earn their entrance into Heaven by keeping certain rules, or through church attendance, or by religious ceremonies.
We often ask the question: if you were to die tonight and stand before God, and God asked you, why should I let you into Heaven, what would you say? This is a brilliant question, designed to see where our confidence lies. If your confidence is in the things which you have done, like church attendance, donating money, being baptised, coming from a Christian family, or keeping the rules in the Bible, then this is a false confidence and we call this self-righteousness. You’re trusting in your own goodness, and we can’t do that because we’re not good people, especially when we compare ourselves to God’s standards.
How then should we answer God when we meet him? We should say, ‘I don’t deserve to go to Heaven because I’ve not loved you as I ought, nor have I loved other people as I should have. I’ve been rebellious and proud and hurt others deeply. But, my confidence is not in myself, but in what Jesus has done, dying on the cross for my sins. My confidence is in him. I’m trusting in the grace and mercy of God.’ And God will allow us to enter Heaven.
The apostle Paul used to be self-righteous. He used to think he was a good man, and God must be pleased with all his efforts. Then he came to realise that actually, he was a great sinner. He called himself the ‘chief of sinners’. He stopped placing his trust in himself, and instead trusted in Jesus, and in his death on the cross for our sins. Listen to his words in his letter to the Philippian church: Philippians chapter 3: ‘If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…’ (Philippians 3:4-9)
When we have an inflated view of ourselves, this is always accompanied by a deflated view of others. If I start thinking proud thoughts about myself, like I do more for God than anyone else I know and know my Bible better than they do, then I will start looking down on other people, thinking, ‘They hardly do anything in the church, and hardly know anything about the deeper things of the faith’.
Let’s be honest: churches are full of people who think they are good people. Perhaps you think you are a pretty good person and were God to grade your life, you’d get a ‘Pass’. You are self-righteous. To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable… This is an explosive parable.
God is telling us that the last thing he wants is people coming to him telling him how good they are. Because the truth is, we’re the opposite of good. We are people who have broken every rule in the book, and the book is the Bible.
JC Ryle: ‘We are all naturally self-righteous. It is the family disease of all the children of Adam. From the highest to the lowest, we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to do. We secretly flatter ourselves that we are not so bad as some, and that we have something to recommend us to the favour of God.’
In this parable we have two men and they both go to the temple and they both pray. But that’s about all they have in common, because in every other respect they are opposites. Let’s home-in on just how different these men are. Let’s consider these two men, their two contrasting prayers, and finally the two different responses of God to the prayers they offer.
1. Two totally different men
When we think of Pharisees today, we tend to ‘boo’, like when villains appear in the panto. But that’s not what Jesus’ listeners thought. We need to appreciate that Pharisees were the most respected people in the whole of Jewish society. They were thought of a holy men, who were zealous for the law of God. They knew all 613 of God’s laws in the Old Testament, and were so careful not to break these laws that they added their own laws as a kind of extra barrier, to ensure they would not cross over into forbidden areas of immorality. A modern-day Pharisee would be in church every week, would give generously to God’s work, would be faithful to his wife, help his neighbours and be well-respected in the community. They tried hard to be good people, thought they were pretty good, and were genuinely convinced that God was pleased with them.
Tax collectors could not have been more different. They were viewed as traitors because they collaborated with the Romans. They were the scum of Jewish society, known for extorting extra money from their own people. They were not even allowed to give testimony in a court of law. When Jesus (verse 10) speaks of two men going to pray, no one would have been surprised at the Pharisee going to the place of prayer- he was always there. However, it would have been shocking for them to hear of a greedy, godless, dishonest tax collector praying. They didn’t do that, did they?
2 Two totally different prayers
How we approach God in prayer is a real indicator of whether or not we are genuine Christians. The way we pray alone before God is a window into our hearts. The Pharisee, despite all of his religion, is not a true Christian at all. He might have been highly esteemed by society, but he has no true relationship with God. How can he get things so wrong? It’s because of his self-righteousness.
He starts his prayer (verse 11) with the word ‘God’ but then God seems to disappear from the prayer and the focus is all on himself. He uses the word ‘I’ 4 times! It’s not so much of a prayer as a list of things he wants to boast about. He so pleased with himself, not just about what he doesn’t do (no stealing or adultery) but also about what he does do. He gives generously (as we all should, but with better motives) and rather than fasting once a year, as God had instructed the Jews, he fasts twice a week. It’s really important to see what’s not included in his prayer. We often speak of the acrostic ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. He seems to adore himself, fails to confess any sin, suggesting that he is blind to his own sin, and fails to ask God for help, because he thinks he can manage on his own. He has no dependence on God. This is a great example of how not to pray.
Rather than comparing himself to God, and his standards, the Pharisee compares himself to the tax collector, and wrongly assumes that he comes off pretty well. If you’re an amateur guitar player, you might compare yourself to someone who has only been playing for a few months, and feel pretty good you are on the guitar. But if you were to hear a virtuoso playing outstanding music flawlessly, then perhaps you would understand how poorly you actually play. The same is true spiritually: we compare ourselves to others, and we think we are doing ok, but compared to the right things, to Jesus’ example and his commandments, we should realise how far we fail in our living. The true cure for self-righteousness is self-knowledge. Knowledge of self is something the Pharisee lacks. His prayer is proud, revealing that he is trusting in his own efforts, not in God’s grace.
The prayer of the tax collector is a thing of spiritual beauty. This is the way each one of us should be praying. This is true Christianity. ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (verse13)
His clear sense of his own unworthiness is seen in the way stands at a distance. He beats his breast, which is a sign of the grief he has over the ways he has offended God and broken his rules. What does he ask for? He asks for God’s mercy. In stark contrast to the Pharisee, who trusts in his own goodness, the tax collector trusts only in the goodness and mercy of God. His confidence is in God.
When he says, ‘Be merciful to me’ this word really means, ‘Let your anger be removed’. The word is to propitiate, which means, turning away God’s wrath. This is actually really helpful for us to think about. The tax collector is making this prayer in the temple, and is able to see the altar, the place where lambs would be killed as symbols of the fact that only a substitutionary death can cover our sins, bringing us into a right relationship with God. Perhaps he glances up at the altar, sees the blood of the lamb, and knows he needs God to provide for him, so his sins can be covered.
How does God want you to approach him in prayer? With self-confidence? Never! Telling him how good you are? Never! He wants you to come humbly acknowledging your need of forgiveness and trusting in the death of Jesus to pray for and cover your sins. He wants you to place your confidence in the work of Jesus on the cross.
3. Two totally different responses of God
Verse 14 clearly outlines God’s response to the tax collector. This would have shocked Jesus’ listeners, but the tax collector, the one thought of as the scum of the earth, was the one God accepts and justifies. Why is that? It’s because he knows true Christianity is not about what we can to for God, but about what God can do for us. It’s because he comes to God in the right way, with a broken and contrite spirit. It’s because he comes humbly and asks for mercy.
Friends, if you come to God like this, confessing your sin and asking for mercy, based on the death of Jesus, God will justify you too. He will delete all of your sin. It will be as if you have never sinned. Don’t be proud. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you are doing well morally. To become a Christian, all you have to do is ask for God’s mercy, trusting in Jesus’ death for your sins. The tax collector had committed many great sins throughout his life. How wonderful that he was not too wicked to be saved. No one is. If only we would cry to God for mercy. V14 ‘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.’
The Pharisee’s sin has not been forgiven, because he has not cried out for mercy. He has not been justified in God’s sight, but remains ‘guilty’ in the sight of God, and will have to pay the price for his own sins. Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled.
Which man are you like? How do you approach God in prayer? Ask God to make you aware of your own guilt and sin, and make a simple cry to God for mercy.