A Pharisee and a publican go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee praises himself in his prayer, calls attention to his religious activities, and compares himself to the publican. The publican stands humbly at a distance, beating his breast, pleading for God’s mercy. Jesus lifts the publican up as the man who got it right before God.
Jesus seems to have reserved the strictest censure, the most stringent denunciation, and the sharpest criticism for the sins of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. It not that he was soft on other sin—he called for holy living and a radical commitment from those who would follow him—but he appears to deal gently with sinners who know that they are such, while demonstrating his harsher side toward the self-righteous. What is so bad about self-righteousness that earned it Jesus’ most severe rebuke?
Sure they were right … but dead wrong
First, self-righteousness assumes that there is no difference between its position and God’s position. Self-righteous folks are convinced that they are right and so right that there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with the way they see and do things. There is no room for self-critique, only self-praise, pride, and vindication. Indeed, they assume that God stands ready to vindicate them in their position. Paul talked about them in 2 Corinthians 10:12 as people who measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves to themselves. It is hard to ever be wrong when you are your own measuring stick. That is what makes self-righteousness so persistent, pervasive, and damnable. Pharisees in Jesus’ day were so sure they were right, but they were dead wrong.
Missing the heart of the matter
A second problem with self-righteousness is a preoccupation with appearances. It is always a question of “How do things look?” or an opinion of “It just doesn’t look right for . . .” for the self-righteous. They take the admonition to abstain from every appearance of evil and make it the hallmark of the Christian life. The result is that they miss the heart of the matter in concern for how things look. There is a false assumption that if things look right, then everything must be okay, that if anything looks questionable, then it cannot be right regardless. Jesus didn’t seem to be too concerned with how things looked when he allowed a prostitute to let her hair down in public and begin to caress his feet. He saw the heart of the matter—the expression of love over the forgiveness of sin. Simon only saw how things looked. It prompted Jesus to ask, “Simon, do you see this woman?” Simon thought he saw, but his self-righteous attitude prevented him from truly seeing. In this story of Jesus (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee comes off looking good to the crowd, but the publican was the one who connected with God and went home justified—righteous!
No place for grace
Another problem with self-righteousness is the fact that it is offended by grace, for others, and for oneself. Self-righteous people assume they have measured up to a rigid standard of morality, and it would be unfair to let others be blessed without measuring up to those same standard. Self-righteousness seeks to define grace in such a way that the demands of the law remain strictly in force. Grace becomes a reward for good behavior. Grace as grace, unmerited favor, is disgusting to the man who is self-righteous. He thinks, “If I have measured up, everyone else should too before they are allowed to enjoy the blessings of God that I have earned for myself.” The man in the story saw no need for God’s grace and would have been offended by the suggestion that he needed it.
Putting people down
Finally, self-righteousness is wrong because there is such a vicious side to it: the constant critique of others. This man could not help but compare himself to the publican and put a barb into his prayer. What would be a greater insult and condemnation than having another person, in your presence, thank God that he isn’t like you? The mood of superiority that self-righteousness carries is bad enough, but there is also the attack on others; sometimes it is verbal and sometimes it simply “hangs in the air,” but you know that it’s there, that you are in some way inferior, unacceptable, and rejected. When self-righteousness is exhibited in the church, it is devastating. It cripples honest effort that is still groping for God’s grace. It discourages hearts from seeking God and His way. It consigns struggling souls to a dungeon of rejection, isolation, and condemnation. As Jesus says, “It lays heavy burdens upon people and does not lift a finger to ease them”—burdens of unrealistic expectations, disapproval, and demands. By contrast, the scriptures prophesied of Jesus: “a bruised reed he would not break, and a flickering wick he would not extinguish.
Self-righteousness puts people down. God’s love in Christ lifted people up. In light of Calvary, let us abandon any sense of self-righteousness.