This past Sunday we looked at Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18). In the parable, the Pharisee’s disposition and attitude towards God is one of relief that he is “not like other men.” He considers those who are known to be sinners or at least morally questionable—adulterers, the unjust, tax collectors—and it is clear that he would be horrified to belong to these groups.
If you know the parable, it is given as an indictment of those, like the Pharisee, “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Unlike the tax collector, they lack any awareness of their own unrighteousness and need for God’s grace. What pours out of their hearts before God is not, “Thank you for your mercy and kindness and compassion towards me,” but “Thank you that I am not like those people.”
One of the clear implications of this parable is that being able to correctly label everyone else’s sin and unrighteousness gets you nowhere with God. To a degree, the Pharisee was right in his judgment, in his convictions of right and wrong: adultery and injustice are wrong; the known dishonesty of tax collectors in that time was wrong.
But you can be right in your conviction, but wrong in your disposition. You can be right in your head, but wrong in your heart. You can have a highly tuned view of morality and justice, and lack humility, heart and love. In the words of Paul, you can have all the knowledge in the world, and lack love, and be nothing (1 Cor. 13).
Fundamentally, this reveals that you think the grace of God is for “other men” and women, but that you can trust in yourself, that you’re righteous.
And this distinction between “trust in self” versus “trust in God” makes all the difference. As Jesus sums it up: “For everyone who exalts himself”—i.e. trusts himself—”will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself”—i.e. by trusting God–“will be exalted.”
This is one reason Christianity must never be reduced to a political party or a social cause. Because joining a political party or social cause is about holding to certain convictions and positions, and being able to point out opposing, erroneous convictions and positions. It is about being “right,” or “just” in your positions, and it doesn’t really matter the condition of your heart, it doesn’t really matter if you love others, if you’re humble; you just have to have a certain set of beliefs.
No, being a Christian, and coming together as a church, is radically different than gathering with any other group or club. We don’t gather to affirm one another and our group as right and righteous. We don’t gather to hear, “Good job, you’ve got it all right, you’re part of the right crowd, you believe the right things, good thing you’re not like those people out there.”
No! We gather to draw near to God, and to confess together his greatness and sufficiency, and our own joy and satisfaction in him.