Luke recorded a parable by Jesus in 18:9-14 of his gospel. The story Jesus told was about two men in the temple and their approach God. The first man, a Pharisee, came before God reciting a checklist of all of the good things he had done. Interestingly, Christ never suggested that the man didn’t do the things of which he boasted nor did He say they were exaggerated or embellished in any way.
However, His story does ring with an indictment of the man for a failure to be up front about the less favorable characteristics of his life. The Pharisee’s presentation focused solely on the good things that he had done while ignoring his darker deeds. His approach to God was the equivalent of a man accused of a crime pleading innocent to every crime except the one for which he was accused. Everything that he said was true—but it was incomplete in such a way as to be inaccurate and distorted.
The second man, a tax collector, was just the opposite. At first glance, we might be tempted to think that he suffered from a poor self-image since he spoke only of how bad he was and threw himself upon the mercy of God. While his account seems as unbalanced as the first man’s, in reality it is not.
Whereas the Pharisee assumed that his good deeds somehow outweighed his bad ones and earned Him relationship with God, the second man understood that his sinfulness meant that he couldn’t be good enough to be good enough so he made no pretension. He entered a guilty plea and concluded that divine mercy (rather than his deeds), would have to be the basis for a relationship with God. While this runs counter to so much of the message from our culture, the truth is, it is the truth. And, any image of ourselves that is built on something other than the truth cannot be healthy and ultimately will not stand.
Moreover, it cannot provide a sound basis for relationships with others.
As revealing as the parable is, it is Luke’s preface has always startled me with its relational clarity. There were some in Jesus’ audience who “were confident of their own righteousness,” (v. 9). In other words, they were living under the delusion that they were good enough to be good enough. They believed they had merited God’s favor by their virtuous life. As we’ve noted, this isn’t true so it cannot be healthy. A self-image that causes one to boast before God is a relational accident looking for a place to happen. Little wonder that Luke finishes his description of such people by telling us they, ‘looked down on everybody else,” (v. 9). How could they not? If they believed themselves to be good enough to good enough for God, then obviously everyone who didn’t measure up (the rest of the general population), would suffer by comparison.
At this point I’m afraid that it becomes easy to be dismissive of this episode by telling ourselves, Well, I’m okay here because I recognize that I need God’s grace. While it’s certainly good to have the understanding that a healthy relationship between God and man is not possible without God’s grace, that’s recognizing only half of Jesus’ teaching here.
Relationships aren’t just vertical (between God and man), they are also horizontal (between man and man), and Jesus taught in Matthew 22:37-40 that both kinds of relationships are foundational to God and our relationship with Him! This too is the teaching of the parable – the grace that fosters our relationship with God also forms the basis for our relationship with others.
The Pharisee’s pride distanced himself and created a barrier between himself and others. By contrast, the tax collector’s admission of his need for grace tore down those walls and enabled him to see that all people stand together as sinners in need of God’s grace. No one is different, special, or unique in this regard. Everyone is in need of grace.