Two elderly, excited Southern women were sitting together in the front pew of the church listening to a fiery preacher. When this preacher condemned the sin of stealing, these two ladies cried out, “Amen, Brother!”. When the preacher condemned the sin of lust, they yelled again, “You preach it, Reverend!”. And when the preacher condemned the sin of lying, they jumped to their feet and hollered, “RIGHT ON, BROTHER! TELL IT LIKE IT IS… AMEN!”. But when the preacher condemned the sin of gossip, the two got very quiet. One turned to the other and said, “He’s quit preaching and now he’s meddlin”.

There is a little bit of self-righteousness in all of us but the scary thing is that we often don’t see it in ourselves, just like the Pharisee in the parable Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14. He would’ve been absolutely gobsmacked by the notion that it was the morally bankrupt, treacherous tax collector who went home justified before God rather than him (vs 14).

How could this be? Pharisees were held up as the good guys, holy men who kept God’s laws. They held to a high view of written Scripture. They wanted nothing more than to please God.

So what was the problem?

The answer is found in verse 9. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…”. In the rest of the parable, we see how self-righteousness plays out in the prayer life of the Pharisee in question! Notice the number of ‘I’ in his prayer to God in just two short verses (I counted four). His self-praise and condemnation of others were brilliantly and sickeningly disguised as prayers of thanksgiving to God! His attitude reeked of contempt, arrogance and smugness for which Jesus absolutely condemned.

A pastor wrote, “Self-righteous people…fail to have proper respect for others and inevitably treat them with contempt. Presuming themselves to be knowledgeable and righteous, thus secure in their fellowship with God, they are condescending toward others”. I could not have said it better.  We should be alarmed at how easy is to be self-righteous and not even see it!

The gospel removes any grounds for any confidence in our own righteousness. Furthermore, there is never any justification for looking down on others even if their choices and lives repulsive and against God’s law. Of course, we can make a stand but we must do so with grace, humility, gentleness and with respect. Our attitude should be the same as that of Christ (read Philippians 2:3-11). That is the only thing that will counteract self-righteousness.

Lord, may we have more faith in you!

Mark Ng