The problem for the Pharisee was not perfection. He would not have thought of himself as perfect. The problem was a “I am better than you” attitude. He was comparing himself to those around him and thinking, “Compared to those folks I am a pretty good guy.” The Pharisee thought he deserved to be in God’s presence. He deserved a place at the table. He was not like other sinners. He was not like whores or thieves or liars. He was a good example to others. He was holier than his neighbors. Sure he he wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty good and certainly better than those guys. It reminds me of this Tom Petty song.
God got lucky when the Pharisee joined up.
Jesus makes it clear that this man trusted in his own righteousness. The word for “trusted” is often translated “persuade.” The Pharisee had persuaded himself that he was righteous. He even declares in his list of what he does not do that he was not “unrighteous. But he was deceived. His view of himself was flawed. In the end he leaves unrighteous and the tax collector leaves righteous. The text does not say, but knowing the human heart my guess would be there were two reasons why he thought himself righteous. First, he compared himself to the people around him instead of to God’s law. Second, he focused on external action instead of internal affection.
The Pharisee has religious zeal. He was serious about God, worship, prayer, fasting, and giving tithes. He was the guy who would be at all the church functions, follow all the rules, make sure he gave exactly 10%, and prayed fervently in public. Using other texts he probably carefully observed the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-7), was careful who he associated (Luke 5:30, 7:39), and careful about not being tainted by the culture (Luke 11:37-38). Yet despite all his religious fervor he is condemned by God.
The Pharisee was not just worse than the tax collector. He was totally rejected by God. The tax collector was justified. The Pharisee was not. This is not a matter of degrees. The Pharisee’s attitude cut him off from God. God can forgive legalism and hypocrisy, but this man did not leave forgiven.
The conservative, church going, tithing, man who was viewed as a good example to the neighborhood and a wonderful blessing to his church goes home unrighteous while the whore who has slept with ten men and is notorious for her sexual immorality goes home justified.
Why? The Pharisee trusted in his own righteousness, believed he was a good guy, and thought God owed him salvation. The tax collector knew he was a vile sinner that could only lean on God’s mercy.
External religion is nothing without heart religion. We can do many righteous things and still be separated from God. Too many Christians in their desire to escape the navel gazing of our fathers have lost the concept of heart religion. External actions can become substitutes for internal affections. When this happens we have become hypocrites. What we see here and in other passages (Matthew 7:21-23, 15:7-9) is a man can look like a Christian and do many of the things Christians are supposed to do and yet not be saved. I wonder if we even think this is possible. Here is a man who jumped through all the hoops, yet went home condemned. As Christians we need to remember this from time to time.
Pride before God leads to contempt of sinners. Jesus makes this connection in Luke 19:9. The word translated despised or contempt is only used one other place Luke. In Luke 23:11 Herod and his men dress Jesus up and treat him with contempt. Proud Christians end up looking down on the sinners around them. Luke is filled with examples of the Pharisees’ disdain for sinners. In Luke 5:30-31 the Pharisees complain because Jesus was feasting with tax collectors. In Luke 7:39 Jesus is eating at a Pharisee’s house, but the Pharisee is disappointed that Jesus allows a sinner to touch him. In Luke 19:7 they complain because Jesus went in to eat with Zacchaeus, a tax collector. Proud Christians refuse to associate with sinners. They are afraid of being tainted. They are afraid of dirtying their reputations. Jesus never excused sin. But sinners were not treated with contempt. All were called to follow him. And no matter how great or ugly the sin a person who looked to Christ for mercy found it. Unfortunately, as Christians, we are not always so kind to sinners.
Christ’s mercy does not come to those who trust in their own righteousness to save them.