One of the most beloved, yet most controversial, aspects of professional football is what they call the end zone celebration. The NFL has been notorious for having spawned things like the high step, fan jumping, and dunking a football over the goal post.
Football players have been known to do some of the most classic dance moves, ranging from the salsa to riverdance. Of course, many are moved by the moment to imitate the chicken dance or make up their own personal gyration. My personal favorite was the ever so popular “Icky Shuffle.”
The NFL has tried to pooh pooh such celebrations, but to no avail. Most of the viewership loves it. Beyond that, there is no stopping the excessive display of man as he proclaims his own greatness.
What we find on the television though is not just something that exists in the realm of professional football. It is something that lurks in the heart of every human being. Each of us, you might say, loves to proclaim our superiority, especially when it comes to our stance before God.
That is why this passage of Scripture was given. It is here to direct our attention to the peril of personal pride. As Jesus was teaching, he gave us this portion of Scripture to remind us that we ought not to have pride in our personal performance or spiritual achievement. He wants us to understand that entering the kingdom of God requires humility because it is based on God’s grace.
The passage before us divides nicely into three sections. In verse 9 we read about the people Jesus addresses. Then in verses 10-13 we read about the parable Jesus tells. And then it wraps up in verse 14 with the principle that he applies.
And each section reminds us that no one is so morally superior that he can attain eternal life.
Let’s begin by thinking about the people Jesus addresses.
I. The People he addresses 
Verse 9 tells us that Jesus directed this parable to a very specific audience. The people that he is addressing are not just identified as Pharisees. But they are described in two ways. They are described as people who “trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
For the last several weeks my daughters have been out riding their bikes. It doesn’t matter how cold it has been, they are ready for spring. And my 2 year old has been extra excited because she is old enough to ride the “big bike.” She’s trading in her tricycle for a two wheeler this year. And she is loving every minute of it. Of course, she has training wheels on right now. And, since she is still pretty young and new to the whole thing, she needs me to help her. Even though its got training wheels, she could easily pitch it over and fall off.
So I’ve been helping her get started. I hold on to the handle bars and pull her along so she “rides” her big bike. Then, she started to get the hang of the whole pedaling concept. So, she can pedal, and I can hold on to the back of the seat and just keep her steady.
But every once and a while she will say to me, “Daddy, I do it!” What she wants is for me to let go and for her to do it on her own. But she doesn’t have enough balance yet. The moment I let go, she’s going to fall.
You see, she’s trusting in her own ability. She believes that her skill is of this superior caliber that she doesn’t need me or the help I offer.
I want you to understand that is exactly what is being spoken of here in this passage. Jesus is addressing those people who trust in their own ability and think that they don’t need the help of God and his grace. There are people who think that their righteousness is of such a surperior caliber that they can stand on their own before God.
And let’s not be naïve. There are many people who are morally superior. There is nothing wrong with that. Actually, moral purity is a commendable thing! We want that! But the danger is that you trust in that goodness. The pitfall of becoming sanctified is that you loose sight of the fact that “grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Except for the grace of God, there go I!
What’s more, this moral superiority leads to moral snobbery. That’s the second thing that is spoken of here in verse 9.
These people Jesus is addressing were not only trusting in their own righteousness, but they were also treating others with contempt.”
You know that look that stuck up teenage girls give? The one where they lift their eyebrows at you and wrinkle up their nose? They look down on you because you are just so not cool. Or you can take the snobby rich person. They are so high class that they just can’t associate with you.
That’s what is going on here. These people were just so far above everyone else when it came to their ethical purity that they looked down on those who didn’t measure up. “I’m sorry, you only read one chapter of the Bible a day? You mean, you don’t fast or give a full tithe?”
A good illustration of this can be found in the book of Galatians. In the book of Galatians Paul talks about how once Peter drew back and would not associate with the Gentiles. It was a form of moral superiority. It was ethical snobbery. “I’m sorry, you are a Gentile? You mean you’ve never been circumcised? Oh well, you are just not clean enough for the likes of me. Us spiritual people will sit over here at this table because God actually loves us.”
Again, these people were extremely disciplined, and we shouldn’t knock them for it. The problem was that they did not see themselves in the right light.
The Apostle Paul gives us the right perspective. Paul was a super apostle. He wrote most of our New Testament. There can be no doubt that he was well advanced in his spirituality. But how did he act? He did not trust in that righteousness, like the people that are described here. He continued to recognize the extent of his depravity. And we should always say with him, “The good I want to do, this I do not do. But the evil I hate, this I keep on doing. What a wretched man I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ!”
But now that we understand the people Jesus addresses, let’s talk about the parable.
II. The Parable he uses [10-13]
In verses 10-13 Jesus tells a parable and he contrasts a man who is morally superior and one who is a complete moral flunky. Both of these guys went up to the temple to pray.
Now, let’s remember that the Pharisee was the guy who was favored to win. If anyone was going to be accepted with God, the people in Jesus’ day would think that it was the Pharisee. You have to remember that the Pharisees were admired for their scrupulous lives and for their discipline. They wrote the book when it came to holiness. If they had lived in America, people would have made them into action figures and trading cards because they were held in such high regard.
And the Pharisee would be the one you would have wanted in your Sunday School class. Look at what he says, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector.”
Mind you, there is nothing expressly wrong with this statement. We should be thankful that we have been kept from these kinds of lifestyles. What is wrong with this statement is that the Pharisee is taking credit for it, rather than giving the credit to God’s restraining grace.
He goes on to say, “I fast twice a week.” Now, the Israelites were only required to fast once a year. The Pharisees usually fasted only once a week. This guy is going far and above what was required. He says, “I give tithes of all that I get.” Hey, he even tithe’s his income tax return!
This guy is amazing in how meticulous he is in his spirituality. And we should applaud his discipline. But his failure is that he is putting all this forward as that which that should make him acceptable to God. His prayer is nothing but a boast of his moral accomplishments. He’s showing off his spiritual resume, and acting like a showboat. The football player will high step into the endzone to show off how great an athlete he is. This Pharisee is doing essentially the same thing.
The text kind of hints at this when it says, “I thank you that I’m not like this Tax Collector.” Verse 13 says that the tax collector “stood afar off.” The Pharisee might be pointing all the way across the temple and saying, “I’m glad I’m not like him over there!”
Anyway, the Pharisee is a picture of someone who is very right, yet very wrong. He’s one who thinks that his ability will bring God’s favor.
He stands in great contrast to the tax collector who hunkered down in a corner and could not even lift his head towards heaven. The tax collector is one who senses the weight of his sin. He understands that nothing good lies in him. As a matter of fact, verse 13 says that he beat his breast because of his agony. He is in such grief for his failures that he physically berates himself.
Focus in on what he says. The sinner’s prayer. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” If we would translate it literally it would go something like this: God, be propitious to me, the sinner.” The word for merciful is the word that is used for propitiation. That was a word that is used in reference to the sacrificial system. It had to do with the removal of God’s wrath. He was acknowledging that he had offended God and provoked his anger and that there was nothing that he could do to change that. He acknowledged that if he was going to be right with the Lord God had to act on his behalf.
What’s more he called himself not just “a sinner,” but “the sinner.” He recognized himself as the chief of sinners; so engulfed in sin that it was his primary characteristic.
That’s the picture that Jesus paints. And in verse 14 he draws out the principle that he has been driving at and applies it.
III. The Principle he applies 
He says, “I tell you this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other one.” The word Justified is an important one. It is a legal word; drawn from the court system. It means to render or declare righteous.
And this is the real shocker. Because the Pharisee was the one who was more righteous. He was the one who everyone was placing their bets on. But it was this wretch who was proclaimed righteous.
Jesus expands on it by saying, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In other words, the way you enter God’s kingdom is on your face. The sole basis for life and salvation is the abundant mercy of God, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to gain it except grovel like poor beggars. We have forfeited every right to it and we are completely dependent upon the grace of God.
This is what most people miss. Very few are willing to make this confession. Very few are willing to admit that they are a sinner in need of God’s grace.
While in Israel this past week I had opportunity to witness this first hand. In two ways actually. I had several opportunities to share the gospel with people while over there. I got to put into practice some of the evangelism training that we’ve been receiving in our evangelism class. I would ask people, “Are you a good person?” And they inevitably would say that they were. Then I would take them through a couple of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen anything? Have you ever used God’s name in vain? They readily admitted to having committed such sins.
But when we got to the next part, the part that involves humility, that’s where people draw the line. If you came before God as Judge, would he find you guilty or innocent? Would he send you to heaven or hell? Everyone knows the right answer to those questions, but they will not answer them. Because to do so requires humility. It means you have to acknowledge that God does not accept you on the basis of your personal goodness.
It takes humility to say, “I am a guilty sinner justly deserving the wrath and curse of God, without hope in this world except through the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
Another thing I saw in Israel was the famous Wailing Wall. The Wailing Wall is that giant wall where all the orthodox Jews go to say their prayers. They line up against that wall and say their prayers while gyrating back and forth. I found out what that wall is so special to them. That wall is the closest that they can get to where the Holy of Holies is supposed to be. That wall is the foundation to the temple mount and it is the point that is nearest to where God was supposed to have dwelt in the temple.
And those Jews are crowding around that wall because they are trying their hardest to get as close as they can to God. Actually, there is a tunnel that you can go through that takes you under the temple mount. And in that tunnel you can have even more proximity to the Holy of Holies. And it is said that there is a long waiting list of Jews who have signed up so that they can get in there. And when I took the tour through that tunnel, sure enough, there were a few Jewish people standing right at that point offering their prayers.
But I thought to myself, they got it all wrong! If they only knew what the Holy of Holies really was, they would not try to get close to it at all! If they really knew God to be holy, they would find a distant place and they would turn their faces away in shame.
In the OT only one person could enter into that place; and that once a year. And the only time he could do so was after he had been purified by means of the blood sacrifice. And he didn’t even go in with all this usual attire. The high priest was normally to be decked out with all kinds of glamorous attire. But when he went into the holy of holies, he was to take off the garments of splendor and color, and he was to go in with only the most bare essentials.
That was to be a picture of his poverty. It was to display that he could only come to God with the pomp of his greatness. He could only approach in the clothing of complete humility.
The lesson we should learn is the one Jesus teaches us right here. If you want to have a place in God’s kingdom—if you want to enjoy eternal life with him—then you must come humbly, acknowledging your need for his grace and forgiveness.
The good news is that he has provided a propitiation for your sins. It is the Lord Jesus Christ. Through his death God’s wrath has been appeased, and through his blood you can draw near to God. The one who is humble enough to confess Him and acknowledge his need for him, will go home justified.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.