KEY THOT: Jesus told this parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector because there were some religious people (like the scribes and Pharisees) who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt” (v.9). The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the “other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector” (v.11). The Pharisees were well-respected religious class in Jewish society. In contrast, the tax-collectors were despised by ordinary Jews because they were seen as traitors who collaborated with the Roman rulers to exploit the Jewish people. The Pharisee sees only his own strengths (tithing and fasting) while he despises those he considers morally inferior to himself; in fact, he has only contempt, not compassion, for them. His contempt for such people exposes the true condition of his heart.
One sure test if we are self-righteous is how we treat people we consider the social and religious “under-class” in our society—the foreign nationals like the HDB cleaners, domestic helpers & those working in F&B outlets; the local “heart-landers” comprising the elderly, the less-educated and the lower income groups; the social outcasts like the street-walkers, drug-addicts, and ex-offenders, including our office tea-ladies, cleaners and drivers. This self-righteous attitude may also extend to other believers from other churches we consider theologically “unsound”. Is our heart filled with compassion for them or contempt when we speak about them? That is the litmus test of whether we are self-righteous.
On the other hand, the mark of humility as exhibited by the tax-collector is one of self-awareness of one's own sin: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Unlike the Pharisee who is proud because he focuses on his own self-made “righteousness”, the tax-collector dares not even look up but beating his breast because he is conscious of his own sin before God. It is not that the Pharisee is without sin. Rather, he is not sin-conscious like the tax-collector. He is oblivious of his own sinful attitudes (like pride and contempt) and sinful motivations (like seeking peer’s approval by his religious performance rather than God’s approval). In contrast, the tax-collector is self-aware he is a sinner before God and therefore cries out to God for mercy rather than for favour and blessing. He doesn’t think he deserves anything good from God. And this sin-consciousness should deepen as we walk closer to God, not diminish. Paul considers himself the chief of sinners when he was about eighty years old: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). Paul does not say, “of whom I was the chief” but rather “of whom I am the chief”. He remains “sin-conscious” till the end of his days, so long as he still lives in the sinful flesh. In fact, the more holy one becomes in Christ, the more sin-conscious one gets -- just as the more light we receive from God, the more areas of darkness in our souls gets exposed by the light: "For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light" (Ephesians 5:12-14).
The prophet Jeremiah describes the human heart as “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” and that the Lord “search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds" (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Let us not become self-deceived like the Pharisee by focusing on righteousness received by our outward religious duties. Instead, let us become self-aware by recognizing that our heart remains deceitful and desperately sick—that only by walking in the light of God's Word and by His Spirit that the darkness in our souls is exposed by His light daily.
Sin-consciousness makes us more grace-conscious. The more we know of God, the more we know that of ourselves, we cannot achieve anything. Jesus' words remain true: "for apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
Father, have mercy on us sinners! Amen.