Will The Real Sinner Please Stand Up?
Chan Gin Kai
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Those who are confident of their own righteousness will inevitably look down on others, and there are more than a few of these self-righteous people around. Jesus saw them and told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector.
The Pious & The Penitent
In the parable, the Pharisee prayed to feel good about himself. He boasted about the “good” things he did, taking pride in his righteous acts with an unrighteous heart. In his eyes, he was the epitome of a righteous man.
The tax collector, on the other hand, asked for mercy. His words were few, but his demeanour said it all. He didn’t even feel worthy to look up to heaven, but bowed his head in abject humility. He beat his breast as he begged for forgiveness. He called himself “a sinner”.
How they regarded themselves show it all — one got arrogant with his righteous acts while the other was broken about his sins.
The Pharisee has certainly sinned before, and I’m sure the tax collector has done righteous things too. We won’t be wrong though, in guessing that the Pharisee would have led a far more devout life than the tax collector.
But Christianity is not a balancing scale between sin and righteousness, and our focus is not in trying to tip the scale towards more good deeds than bad. Our righteous acts do not negate the wrongs we have committed. Big sins or small, many sins or few, we must all be broken about our iniquities and turn to God in repentance.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
There is no saint without a past and no sinner without a future.
Between the pious and the penitent, God prefers the latter.
The Whats & The Whys
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector went to the temple, and they both prayed to God. They did similar things, but their motivations were different. The Pharisee thanked God for how good he was, not for how good God is. The number of times he used “I” in his prayer reflected his focus. The tax collector saw the need for God in his life.
Now, the Bible does teach us to fast and give sacrificially. So this passage cannot become our excuse for downplaying the importance of these acts. Jesus fasted 40 days before he started his ministry, and that’s certainly not the only time he fasted. As for giving sacrificially, he gave his life. So there’s no doubt that fasting, tithing and all the other things that the Bible teaches us to do, are important.
In fact, the Bible calls us to “make every effort to add” all kinds of godly qualities to our lives and to have them in “increasing measures” (2 Peter 1:5-9). The qualities described in the passage include faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection and love. These encompass our obedience in head, heart and deeds.
So what we do certainly matters. The question is, why do we do what we do?
Are our hearts filled with gratitude for God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice? Is this what compels us to do the things we do as Christians? We may keep to a “Christian lifestyle” and yet forget the real reason why we gave up our sinful past.
We can all do similar things, but with very different hearts. What we do matters, why we do them matters even more.
Between the Whats and the Whys, the latter matters more.
The Proud & The Humble
The Pharisee prayed, “… I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.”
We have a natural tendency to compare ourselves with others and there are certainly problems with this.
Firstly, we tend to look at ourselves more favourably than we should. We play down our sins and magnify the weaknesses of others. There’s somehow an excuse to justify our failures, but we do not allow the same grace on others. We are so quick to pick up their flaws and we hold them to a higher standard than what we hold ourselves.
Secondly, so what if we really do tick more boxes than others? Our goal is NOT to become better than others, but to be Christ-like. Instead of pleasing our pride by comparing ourselves with the “more sinful”, let’s compare ourselves with Christ and feel humbled. “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)
Thirdly, we do not deserve salvation more than others just because we’ve “accomplished” more spiritually. We are all lost and just as in need of God’s grace.
We will naturally feel good if we obey God, but we shouldn't be acting righteously to feed our pride. Christianity is not about getting spiritual accomplishments, it is about pleasing God who loves us. It is a beautiful romance where we humbly exalt God, and He lovingly exalts us.
Between the proud and the humble, God exalts the latter.
Chan Gin Kai
Gin Kai is a film producer who believes in the power of media to inspire positive changes. He has spearheaded disaster relief and capacity building projects in impoverished communities across Asia. He serves actively in the Central Christian Church and describes himself as “just a sinner who wants to get right with God”.