There is a very fine line between pride and self-righteousness. They are first cousins. In Luke’s preface to the story of the two men praying in the temple, he highlights the fact that one of the marks of the people in Jesus’ sights was that “they trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Here is how Eugene Peterson translates verse 9 in The Message.
He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance.
It’s that complacent confidence that seeps out in the Pharisee’s behaviour as he prays about himself and his achievements.
Jesus highlights the fact that the man stood off by himself. Some of the translations suggest that it might be better to take it that he was praying to himself or praying about himself – and he certainly did those things – but we can stick with the ESV translation that he was “standing by himself.” Standing by himself was actually a clear visual demonstration of what he thought about himself. He was in a league of his own, not like all those other people. Why should he stand with everyone else? He was different. The self-righteous stand apart because they are different from and better than everyone else.
His prayer was a strange prayer. He started off referring to God – that’s the first word in the prayer – but the in the rest of the prayer he talked about himself. He even managed to include a sideways dig at all the sinful people whom he considered to be morally inferior. There was no real expression of worship; there was no confession of sin; there was no genuine thanks for the blessings that God’s grace had given him; and there were no requests. He didn’t seem to need anything. The self-righteous can become the self-sufficient.
This is the prayer of a man who is “complacently pleased” with himself.
Let’s take a closer look at his religious achievements.
For one thing, he had managed to avoid (as far as we know) the big, obvious sins. That’s the kind of sin that he prayed about.
- Extortion: he wasn’t a money grabber, like some people.
- Injustice: he was a fair man who lived in line with what was right. He wasn’t dishonest and he didn’t cheat.
- Adultery: he had been true to the promises he had made in his marriage; he had stayed faithful to his wife.
He sounds like a pretty good man. Let’s face it: society would better off if people avoided those sins. And – the forgotten dimension – sin matters to God. This man, praying at the temple, had avoided the big sins.
He had also managed to become a successful legalist. We get a clue from the way he talked about his practice of the disciplines of fasting and tithing. There was nothing wrong with either; in fact that Law of Moses required people to tithe and to fast. But the only requirement about fasting was that it should happen once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Some people had taken it a few steps farther by fasting twelve days per year. This Pharisee fasted twice a week. In terms of tithing, he gave a tenth of everything. Elsewhere Jesus spoke about people who tithed everything, right down to tiny herbs like mint.
So on the one hand he was pleased with himself for having been able to steer clear of the big, obvious sins; on the other hand, he was pleased with himself for the legalistic attention to detail that went far beyond what the Law actually expected of him. These were the things – avoiding big sins and practicing detailed legalism – that left him “complacently pleased.”
Some of us might find that we are a bit like that Pharisee. As long as we are confident that we have managed to avoid the big, scandalous sins, we feel good about ourselves. If you have avoided the kinds of sins that the Pharisee had avoided, you should actually thank God. But not in the way he did. You should thank God for his grace that has kept you from falling into these things.
One of the problems with focussing on the obvious sins is that we might find that we are failing to notice the less obvious sins, sins of attitude and sins of the heart. Focussing on the fact that you are not an extortioner may blind you, for example, to a heart that is discontented and jealous of others who have more than you. Applauding yourself for your keen sense of what is right and wrong may blind you to a tendency towards a narrow judgmentalism that at times has you operating as judge, jury and executioner. And didn’t Jesus teach that there is such a thing as adultery in the heart?
Bu the problem here is pride. The self-righteous are proud of themselves and their achievements. Our hearts are such that we can turn a virtue – avoiding extortion, injustice or adultery – into a vice. That’s what makes self-righteousness such a slippery sin. As Steve Brown said,
The sin of self-righteousness is always built on the good and the pure.
So if your life has been free from moral shame and scandal, pause long enough to ask yourself whether you see this is something to feel good about, because you have achieved it, or something to feel genuinely grateful about, because God’s grace has protected you.
As for the legalism, you can make that a measure of your standing too: just as the Pharisee did. You may tithe and you may fast. You may spend an hour a day in Bible reading and another hour in prayer. You may submit to a range of spiritual practices, none of which is wrong, but any one of which can be distorted to the point where, instead of being the fruit of a heart that loves God and wants to seek more of his grace, it becomes a badge of honour that we wear in our complacent confidence.
And that qualifies us – we think – to judge those who don’t measure up to our standards.