And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)
I have been impressed by several features of Jesus’ functional definition of righteousness (Luke 18:9-14).In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the temple to pray, there seems to be no question that Jesus sees both as sinners. But the publican is justified or set right because he knows he is a sinner and calls on God to cleanse him.
In contrast, the Pharisee does not seem to recognize his own spiritual limitations. He itemizes his bases for a positive self-evaluation: he fasts twice a week, and pays tithes on everything he makes. He is indeed observant! But he trusts in his own righteousness.
Any time we inventory our good deeds to prove our merit, we are showing our misplaced trust. Any time we trust our actions to save us rather than His merits, mercy, and grace, we demonstrate our spiritual ignorance and poverty.
But there is an added difference between the two characters: The Pharisee compares himself to others while the publican does not. Apparently, the Pharisee does not do his good deeds to show his earnestness to God, he uses them to bludgeon the publican, to prove his superiority.
It seems to me that Jesus is asking us with this parable to avoid judging each other. The same message can be seen in the introduction: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Jesus was challenging those of us who trust ourselves. We should not compare our goodness to that of others. We should call on God for mercy. It is God who will justify us. It is He who will save us. It is He who is our only hope.
Compare this idea with the counsel that Alma gives to his fallen son, Corianton:
And now, my son, I desire that ye should let [your sins and failings] trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance. (Alma 42:29, see also verses 30-31)
Alma, the great Book of Mormon repenter, recommends at least three steps:
- Humility: Let our failings make us humble.
- Repentance: Call on God for mercy.
- Fruits: Serve God.
Our grieving is transformed into rejoicing when it drives us to the arms of Jesus to receive mercy. We do not need to compare our righteousness to that of any other person. We do not need to inventory our good deeds. We simply need to go to Him.