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Humility: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

Being a Christian does not confer the social advantage it once did. There was a time in America when membership in a prominent church could bring a businessman respectability in the community and valuable contacts. But in this essentially post-Christian age, the term "Christian gentleman" has a slightly archaic ring to it. One's religious affiliation has become a private matter of little interest to the general public, and there remains but little prestige in belonging to the "right" church.

No matter how much one may regret the declining influence of church membership on American social life, this loss of clout has had the healthy effect of reducing religious hypocrisy and pride. Because it no longer pays socially or financially to be a Christian, church pews hold fewer people who merely pretend to be Christian and fewer still who see Christianity as a means of upward social mobility. In this sense, ironically, Christianity has actually benefited from its decline in popularity.

Obviously, it has not always been so. In the time of Jesus, religious leaders such as the scribes and Pharisees enjoyed moral authority and social standing. But the religious pride of the Pharisees had not so much to do with their social, economic, or political status as it did with their legalism. They felt superior to others because they kept the rules and regulations of the law more scrupulously than the worldly Sadducees, the ignorant hoi polloi, and the ungodly sinners. Their religious pride flowed more from self-satisfaction than from social status.

The Pharisee in this parable is clearly self-absorbed. A preposition in verse 11 is difficult to translate. Some take it that he prayed "to" himself, that is, silently. Other translators believe the context demands "about" himself. Whatever the case, he definitely had a list of religious reasons that declared him righteous both by omission and commission. As was the case with Job of old, nothing was wrong with his righteousness, and everything was wrong with his attitude.

How ironic that pride, the greatest sin, is neither something you do nor something you fail to do. The greatest sin is a bad attitude, an unholy state of mind. Someone has said that "pride is an attempt to maintain a favorable image of oneself that differs from reality." Differs from what reality? Nothing indicates this Pharisee was a hypocrite. He undoubtedly did give liberally and fast regularly. He probably was honest in business and faithful to his wife. Pride's favorable image does not run counter to everyday reality. Instead, it contradicts the reality of God's perspective that we human beings are but humble servants who deserve no special credit for doing our duty (Luke 17:7-10).

The tax collector seems to realize that "today's peacock is tomorrow's feather duster." To paraphrase Shakespeare's Macbeth, all human vanity, arrogance, and pride merely light the way to dusty death. They represent knowledge without wisdom, competence without compassion, and learning without love. The tax collector, a self-confessed sinner, throws himself upon the mercy of God, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).

Worldly pride tells us we are respected by other people. Spiritual pride tells us we have earned God's favor. Whether worldly or spiritual, the more we think we know or have achieved, the greater the temptation to attribute that knowledge or success to our own effort and to look down upon those who know or who have achieved less. Jesus implies that we are what we are by the grace of God. From this vantage point, we realize that Zacchaeus, another tax collector, was saved not simply because of the good deeds he pledged to do but because he was a "son of Abraham," a man who trusted in God (Luke 19:9).


1.What signs of worldly pride, if any, do you see in the Christianity today?

2.What signs of spiritual pride, if any, do you see? Is division within the church sometimes caused by spiritual pride?

3.Do you agree or disagree that church membership is no longer a social or economic advantage in American society? Have you known of Christians who tried to use Christianity for personal advancement?

4.Law is God's revelation of what is right and wrong. Why, then, is legalism dangerous? Do you know any specific examples of misguided legalism?

5.We are saved by the atonement of Christ, not the attainment of man. How can one best cultivate an attitude of humility before God? What are some concrete, practical methods?

6.The Pharisee had his list to convince God of his righteousness. What do you think most Christians would put on their lists? Are tithing and fasting prominent on the Christian lists? If not, why not?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 14, 2007 8:59 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Tolerance: The Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30).

The next post in this blog is Steadfast Love: The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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