27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.Luke 5:27-32, ESV
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
In the previous passage, Jesus equated Himself with God. The Pharisees were correct in their thinking that only God can forgive sins, and Jesus intentionally leaned into that true belief to assert His divinity. The Pharisees refused to believe that Jesus could forgive sins, even after His confirming miracle. Why wouldn’t they believe? To answer with a single word, “pride” (Rom 1:18-32), that is the reason they refused to believe.
Self-righteousness is a manifestation of the sin of pride, and it is probably the sin that stained the reputation of those Pharisees. Today, if you are called a Pharisee by another Christian, you are not being lauded for your disciplined life and conservative theology. The name “Pharisee” has been sullied, and that name represents a holier-than-you kind of attitude that is repulsive to Christians and non-Christians alike.
The sin of self-righteousness is such a dangerous sin because while it’s easy to recognize it in other people’s lives, we tend to be oblivious to how that sin is operating within our own thoughts, words, and actions. The Pharisees are infamously self-righteous, but we mustn’t assume that we are immune to that repulsive sin. We must be like soldiers tasked with clearing a room as we search our hearts for the deadly sin hidden within our hearts.
Those Pharisees were not purposefully self-righteous, and neither are Christians who accidentally reflect the spirit of those enemies of Christ. The goal of righteousness was the Pharisee’s aim. When Christians today fall prey to the temptation of self-righteousness, they do so in pursuit of real righteousness. So then, what is righteousness? That is precisely the thirty-fifth question in A Catechism for Boys and Girls, and the correct answer is given, “It (righteousness) is God’s goodness.” So, let’s apply this basic truth. When modern Christians resemble the Pharisees, it is an accidental mishandling of God’s goodness. In what way? Those Pharisees intended to obey God’s law, our objective standard of God’s righteousness but became guilty of imagining themselves to be measuring up. The moment a person thinks that they measure up to the Holy standard of righteousness is when they become self-righteous.
Jesus Christ was the only truly righteous man ever to live (Matt 5:17). He alone can ascend the mountain of our God and stand in His Holy Father’s presence with clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24). The rest of us are unable and in need of righteousness, or we will never be able to enter into the Kingdom of God (Matt 5:20). We have no righteousness of our own (Rom 3:10). Our personal righteousness is compared to polluted garments in Isaiah 64:6. Jesus speaks parabolically about wedding garments as the image for righteousness in Matthew 22:1-4. If we would enter into His wedding feast, we must receive the free and gracious offer of righteousness or be eternally cast away.
Let me try and beat this drum again. If we would enter into God’s Heaven, we must receive the free and gracious offer of God’s goodness (righteousness) or be eternally lost. I can almost hear the blessed question, “what does that mean?” Friend, God the Father, sent His Son into our world to be a willing representative for us. Jesus obeyed all the laws of God in our place to merit righteousness for us. Then Jesus willingly died in our place for the merits of our unrighteousness. Next, God resurrected Christ on the first day of the week to confirm to us all the promises of God are sure for all who believe in Jesus. Upon Jesus’ ascension to the Heavenly throne, He and the Father sent the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, draw us to Himself, and sanctify His sheep. When a person recognizes themselves to be desperately in need of God’s forgiveness because they are unrighteous sinners, the good news is forgiveness (righteousness) is given to all who repent and believe in Jesus. That is why Jesus is prophetically given the title of “The Lord is our righteousness” in Jeremiah 23:6.
Jesus’ Tax Man.
Do you like the idea of tax collectors? Probably not. Levi, who is also known to us as Matthew, was a tax collector. If we are not familiar with that job’s cultural context, we may think Levi is generally unpopular, but we might not realize he is more likely despised and hated. Why would a tax collector be hated? The nation of Israel, at the time of Christ, was under Roman occupation. The political climate could become volatile in Jerusalem very easily. (I’m sure that comes as a shock) The average hardworking orthodox Jewish man would likely have hated the likes of Levi because tax collectors were working for the Romans. Tax collectors were Jewish men who betrayed their own countrymen almost daily by collecting an exorbitant amount of money from them to pay for the Romans to continue oppressing Palestine. Naturally, families did not always cooperate willingly with tax collectors, and under Roman rule, men like Levi were often allowed to extort extra money for their own personal gain. That extra incentive often motivated those Jewish traitors to faithfully execute their duties and thereby earning for themselves the detestation of most hardworking orthodox Jewish families.
That generalization of tax collectors helps us to recognize why the Pharisees were scandalized with Jesus’ willful association with such men. The Pharisees complained that Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors. The truth is, He even chose one of those tax collectors to be one of His twelve apostles. Why choose a man like that? Why not? Aren’t we all unrighteous? What is it that rises up inside us that views some people as morally inferior to us? Oh, that’s right, “self-righteousness” is the correct term for that attitude.
There are at least two contrasts that I want us to see before we end. First, look at the contrast that Luke makes between Jesus and the Pharisees. Those Pharisees are self-righteous and ungracious toward tax-collectors, while Jesus is gracious toward them and truly righteous. The contrast is as stark as a moonless night to the noonday sun. Second, pay attention to the contrast of the Pharisees and tax collectors. The Pharisee’s were honored in their society while the tax collectors were dishonored, but Jesus is engaging with tax collectors while the Pharisees are complaining.
The complaint of the Pharisees wasn’t completely baseless. Listen to Jesus rebuke those self-righteous people. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” He did not try and defend their immoral behaviors, but He did defend His association with them. Jesus came to heal sick people. Those tax collectors were the spiritually sick people that Jesus had come for. Here is the rub. Jesus was not suggesting that the Pharisees didn’t need His righteousness and grace. The Pharisees were also sick, but the difference was in self-awareness. The Pharisees were unrighteous too. Thier problem was that they couldn’t see themselves as unrighteous. They had become spiritually blind to their own need of righteousness. Paul later described this phenomenon to the Romans when he wrote, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The tax-collectors realized that they were sick, and therefore Jesus was able to mend. The Pharisees would not admit their need, and therefore Jesus allowed their wounded souls to fester.