My initial reaction to this parable is, “God, thank you that I am not like that egotistical and arrogant Pharisee!”
But in doing that, my reaction mirrors the Pharisee in that I am basing my moral superiority upon comparing myself to another. That is a recipe for pride and conceit, and I don’t want any of that coming out of my oven. Pharisees seem to have a knack for cleaning the outside of their cup and assuming the inside of their cup will take care of itself. But Jesus exposes this lunacy in Matt. 23, teaching that getting your externals in order does not indicate you are spick and span on the inside.
This parable is about more than the prideful pharisee and the humble tax collector. It is about two men: the Pharisee who does not see himself rightly and a tax-collector who does see himself rightly. One makes false assumptions about his standing before God, the other is acutely aware of his standing before God. The Pharisee is more aware of others sins that he is of his own, while the tax-collector is more cognizant of his own sins than those of others.
This is a wild world we are spinning on. We are barraged day and night with stimuli that will either puff us or pull us down. It is increasingly difficult to have an accurate view of ourselves. But an accurate view of ourselves is more important than a positive/ negative one. If we esteem ourselves wrongly, too high or too low, then it clouds our relationship with God. On the flip side, if we esteem ourselves correctly, then it allows our relationship with God to flourish.
So how do we see ourselves correctly? Let the Gospel soak and saturate us. Let us meditate upon it day and night. Robert Murray M’Chyne wrote, “For every look as self, take ten looks at Christ.” The key to seeing ourselves more accurately is not to contemplate ourselves more, but to consider the person and work of Jesus Christ more. The more we perseverate on ourselves, the more imperceptibly we fall into the same trap as the Pharisee, trusting in our own righteousness and treating others with contempt.
Treating others with contempt should be a major red flag to followers of Christ. When the Gospel has lost its grip on us, then we will see others mired in sin/ destructive behavior and we will think the difference between them and us is based upon some moral superiority. This is what fuels contempt for others. But when the full force of the Gospel is relentlessly washing over our hearts and minds, we will see others mired in sin and apart from God and think the difference between them and us is simply based upon the mercy and grace of God. When we accurately see ourselves, we realize how desperate we are for Christ and when we see sinners, we don’t pray prayers like, “I’m thankful I am not like them,” but rather, prayers like, “Gracious God, that used to be me. Be merciful to them as you were merciful to me.”
For as this parable ends, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”