The great danger for the church is legalism. I’ve said this more than once, but it bears repeating, often, because it’s a constant temptation. In fact, we might say that legalism pulls us with the force of gravity—we fly by God’s grace, but if we aren’t constantly seeking to stay in the air, we will crash.
That’s easy to miss. When we think of legalism, we think of moralism and all sorts of rules about things we can’t do, and an excess of that sort of thing just doesn’t seem to be a major problem in our society just now; but that’s just one form legalism takes. That’s not what it’s about—that’s not what it is. Legalism is about self-salvation. It tells us we can be good and live the good life (however we understand that) while still ruling our own lives, through our own effort, by keeping the rules. They may be rules we associate with the Bible, they may come from the self-help movement, they may be ones we make up ourselves; they may be about living up to other people’s rules, or about breaking other people’s rules. That’s just details. The core is the same: I choose the rules I follow, I keep them myself, I’m in control of my life, and I get the credit.
That point about getting the credit is important: part of the appeal of legalism is the fertile ground it offers for spiritual pride. “Righteousness” isn’t a popular word these days, but whether they use it or not, I think everyone has a concept of righteousness—of how they ought to be living, and what it would look like to live that way—whether they believe in a god outside themselves or not. God has not left himself without a witness, and one way or another, everyone has to deal with that. But if you can convince yourself that you know what rules are important and you’re doing a good job of keeping them, then you can tell yourself that you’re doing well—and you can feel superior to all those around you who aren’t keeping them as well as you are.
This is in some ways a base and childish temptation; but it can easily be made to look very spiritual and impressive, if the rules you follow seem to be noble ones. This was much of the problem with the Pharisees; after all, what rules could possibly be nobler than the law of God? Of course, as Jesus pointed out more than once, what they were really keeping wasn’t God’s law, but their interpretation of God’s law; even so, they were convinced of their own righteousness, and of their right to look down on the “people of the land,” who didn’t meet their standards. To them, Jesus told this parable.
The atonement sacrifices for Israel were offered twice a day in the temple, at dawn and 3pm. (When the text says these men went up to pray, don’t assume private prayer—the same word was used for going to public worship, and that’s pretty clearly the case here.) At each service, a congregation gathered to worship, to pray during the burning of the incense after the lamb had been sacrificed, and to receive the blessing of the priest. Among those who went up this day were a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both stood apart from the congregation. The tax collector knew himself despised and rejected by the rest as a lawbreaker and a traitor to his people; the Pharisee despised and rejected the rest, and believed touching them would make him unclean.
Though he considered himself superior to the rest of the congregation and wouldn’t stand among them, the Pharisee wasn’t completely separate from them. You see, Jewish practice was to pray aloud; it seems this Pharisee was taking advantage of that, praying loudly enough so that those closest to him could hear him and profit from his example. After all, they wouldn’t get many chances to see a truly righteous person, so it was clearly his duty to instruct them. Thus he prayed aloud, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, who are thieves, rogues, and adulterers, like that tax collector over there. No, I fast twice a week, and I give tithes of everything I own—not just of grain, wine, and oil, but a tenth of everything, even of my spices; I do far more than the Law requires. God, I’m wonderful, I’m doing a great job of following you, I have every reason to be proud of myself, and I thank you for that.”
The Pharisee is so enmeshed in his sin, he can’t even see it. As the twelfth-century Arab Christian scholar Ibn al-Ṣalibi commented, “We know that the one who isn’t a thief and adulterer isn’t necessarily a good man. Furthermore, experience demonstrates that the search for the faults and failures of others does the greatest harm of all to the critic himself, and thus such action must be avoided at all costs.” Thus, even as the Pharisee holds up the state of his spiritual life for admiration, he’s tearing it to shreds.
In sharp contrast, we have the tax collector, standing well behind the congregation, far from the altar. To the Pharisee, he’s merely a sinner to be avoided, but that’s not all he is. Standing in a posture of humility, hands crossed over his chest and head bowed, he begins to beat on his chest in anguish. This was an expression of extreme emotion, something women might do in public—at a funeral, perhaps—but not men. The only other place in Scripture where we find men beating on their chests is after the death of Christ on the cross—it would take something that terrible to evoke such a response. That we see the tax collector doing it shows the depth and power of his anguish at his sin.
As he beats on his chest, he prays. “Mercy” is too light a word here—what he says is, “God, make an atonement for me, a sinner.” The atonement sacrifice has just been offered, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, hammering his chest with his fists, the tax collector begs God that somehow that atonement would count for him, not just for the others, that somehow it would be enough to cover his sins. “O God,” he cries out, “let it be for me! Somehow, let it be for me.” He is utterly broken, knowing his complete unworthiness even to stand in the temple, knowing all the evil he has done, knowing there is absolutely nothing to commend him to anyone, let alone a holy God; and yet he stands there hoping desperately that the mercy of God might just manage to find him, that maybe it might be possible that he could be made right with God.
And what does Jesus say? “I tell you, it is this man who went down to his home justified, not the other.” Why? “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Pharisee exalts himself—he praises himself for his godliness, his closeness to God—and despises those whom he considers less godly; the atonement isn’t available to him, because he doesn’t really think he needs it. He’s riding for a fall, and God will bring him down. By contrast, the tax collector humbles himself before God, under no illusions as to his worthiness, only pleading that the sacrifice would somehow atone for his sins, and so it is he who God lifts up; it is he who is made right in the eyes of God.
There’s no room for pride here. As Paul told the Corinthians, God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the lowly, the despised, and the nobodies so that he might put to shame those who think they’re somebody. If you think you have it all together, if you think you get the credit for the good things in your life, you need to look to your heart. If you think you’re righteous enough that you can focus on finding and highlighting everyone else’s faults, you’re not. If you think you have the right to refuse to forgive those who have done you wrong, you need to repent and be forgiven. But if you know your sins, if you know you’re not worthy, if you know you need forgiveness and grace, then welcome. Welcome, because this is for you. Let’s pray.