A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple.
The Pharisee stands tall, boasts about his religiosity, and prays: “Thank God I’m not like this tax collector!” At a distance the tax collector quietly confesses his sins and asks God for mercy.
Jesus tells us that the tax collector, in humility, went home justified before God.
A Hunger for Achievement
The subtle brilliance of this parable is that many listeners think: “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!” But in doing so, they emulate the one whom they condemn.
The truth is that, in some ways, most of us are like the Pharisee.
From a young age, we’ve been told that success is measured in observable behavior. So we have worked to earn top grades from our teachers, favorable performance reviews from our bosses, and approval from our parents. Many of us have internalized the belief that our worth is based on our achievements.
And though we may deny it, many of us also thrive on rules and rubrics, which establish standards against which we judge ourselves and others. We glory in our accomplishments in part because we recognize how few attain them. Medical school admission, for instance, would be far less desirable if everyone got accepted. To win means that others lose. To be chosen means that others are rejected. Throughout life, we compare ourselves to other people to ascertain our standing.
A Need for Control
We may apply this “achievement” mindset to religion as well. With eternity at stake, we want to ensure our salvation. And human religion seemingly satisfies this need for control. Like the Pharisees, we may claim to live for God while actually trying to control him through our rituals. We call it worship, but it’s a one-sided negotiation.
We may follow checklists of biblical commands to the letter—without regard for the spirit—of the law. We demand clear-cut definitions to defend our conduct: “How far can I go?” and “Who is my neighbor?”
And we find comfort in our self-imposed moral thresholds. Like students who ask before their final exam, “How many points do I need to earn [desired grade]?” we too consider the minimum effort needed.
Even when we fall short of our legalistic standards, we take pride in our perceived relative morality over others: “At least I’m not like that [insert sinner of choice].” The well of human justification is bottomless.
A Command to Love
Jesus is onto our schemes, of course, and exhorts us to an authentic and faithful life. We see this in Scripture when a Pharisee, trying to test Jesus and display his own knowledge, asked: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Jesus responded: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Love God, love people—these are more central to Christianity than any religious rule or ritual. Our faith should deepen our relationships with God and others. Consider what that might look like in each area:
1. Relationship with God. It’s easy to point out worldly idols like money, power, and fame. But the most insidious idolatry is often religious in nature. Ministry activities, if we are careless, can become false substitutes for a relationship with God.
Similarly, we cannot love God with the mind alone. Recall Jesus’ rebuke to the Jews: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). We must offer God all our heart, soul, and mind. Idolatry festers in that which we withhold. By compartmentalizing our lives, we inhibit deeper intimacy with God and risk relapsing into a merit-based spirituality.
2. Relationships with others. James 1:27 tells us that religion acceptable to God is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The Pharisees emphasized the second directive (purity) at the expense of the first (compassion).
Loving God and people are inextricable. We cannot love him while hating others (1 John 4:20). God doesn’t want our offerings when our relationships remain unreconciled (Matthew 5:23-24). He rejects our worship when we neglect justice for others (Amos 5:21-24). Without compassion, churches devolve into insular social clubs more concerned about being right than being loving.
A Call to Follow
Jesus did not come to establish a system of religion. The Word became flesh to reconcile us to God and to our neighbors. There is no checklist to complete, no competition to win, no extreme vetting process.
He calls us simply to follow him.
Unlike religion, which is concerned with outward appearance and rule-keeping, following Jesus entails more than obeying his teachings. Certainly, obedience is part of it. But following him requires a paradigm shift—from keeping commands to trusting the person of Jesus.
Jesus calls us not to behavior modification but to practical holiness, not to fervent religiosity but to Christian maturity, not to being the greatest but to serving the least. These outcomes are not achieved through willpower nor controlled by careful planning but rather are the result of his Spirit’s work within us. If we, by faith, cast off the weight of religion and humble ourselves, Jesus will lead us into abundant, authentic life.
Let us rejoice not that we are unlike the Pharisee—but that we, by God’s grace, are becoming like Jesus.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.