Confidence is a funny thing. Not funny as in witty but funny as in peculiar. Semantically it’s got a range of meaning. Sometimes it’s a good thing and at other times it’s not. It all depends on the context. Spiritually speaking; self confidence is misplaced. It’s known as arrogance. And that’s bad. And Jesus told a story to warn of the dangers of spiritual self confidence. It’s called the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It’s one of my favourites!
It was my privilege to speak to some of the pupils at Cranleigh School this last week, as part of their Lenten Addresses. It was essentially a school mission. This parable got more leverage than any other talk that I gave. I think that’s because it’s so unexpected. No one really thinks that God works like this. We assume that God makes friends with the religious types. But we may have taken for granted the wonderful surprise of the gospel.
Jesus told this parable because there will always be people confident of their own righteousness and therefore their own standing with God. He told a story about two men; one was an upstanding member of the community and the other was a disgrace. Both went to the Temple to pray. One returned home God’s friend and the other left as God’s enemy. But it wasn’t the way round that we’d expect. It was the man who’d made a mess of his life that walked away confident that God would accept him. Why is that?
It’s because there were three things that were true of the tax collector that were not true of the Pharisee.
1. He recognised his sin
The Pharisee thought much of his exemplary religious performance. Not so the tax collector. In his heart of hearts he knew that he’d lived life in God’s world without any reference to Him. He knew that he’d treated God with contemptuous disdain and so he couldn’t even approach him or even look up to the heavens. And he was right. In the same way, we need to recognise that we too are sinners. We’ll get nowhere in the Christian life until we own up to the fact that we have not lived the way that God would have us do. He’s not been number one in our lives. He’s not directed the way we live, the things we say and what we allow ourselves to think. Unless we admit this truth, Jesus Christ will never amount to much in our lives.
2. He relied on God’s mercy
The Pharisee prayed but didn’t think he needed anything. He was supremely self confident. Not so the tax collector. His plea was that God would not give him what he knew he deserved. What he deserved was God’s punishment for the way that he’d treated Him. But he threw himself at God’s mercy. In the same way, we need to rely on God’s mercy. But will we throw ourselves at His feet and rest on nothing else but His compassion. What other option do we have? How else do you propose we persuade God to overlook our sinful rejection of His rightful rule? Do you really want to rely on your good works? Do you really want to tell Jesus that he was wasting his time dying on the cross because you don’t need his help?
3. He returned home justified
The Pharisee left the temple God’s enemy. Not so the tax collector. He returned home justified. God decided to think of him ‘just as though he was Jesus’. That’s incredible. This sinful man who threw himself on the mercy of God was declared righteous. Every time God thought of him He thought he was morally perfect. Every time God looked at him He looked at someone pure and holy. He knew his life was a mess but God thought he was blameless. How? Is God stupid? No, but He is gracious. He gives us what we don’t deserve. And what we don’t deserve is Christ’s righteousness. But on the cross an exchange took place. Jesus took our unrighteousness and gave us his righteousness. God regarded Him as a sinner and punished him accordingly. God regards us as holy and treats us accordingly. When God thinks of us, even at the moment of our worst sin, He thinks of us as though we’re His perfect Son.
Jesus concludes his parable with these words, ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted’ Luke 18:14. God will humiliate the arrogant but praise the humble. That’s the way it is. So what will you do? You’re of age; make up your own mind. How do you fancy your chances going down the merit route? Jesus says that there’s a better way; mercy. If we’re prepared to recognise we’re sinners and if we’re prepared to rely on God’s mercy then we can be confident that we’re God’s friend. Is that not the single best thing that you have ever heard in your whole life?