The mistake of the Pharisees was their religious practice that caused them to elevate the outward conduct of keeping the law over the compassion of a transformed heart. It was not unlike Martha’s elevation of doing over Mary’s being (Luke 10:38–42). The Sabbath became more important than mercy (Matt. 12:1–13; John 9:13–17) and tradition more important than the commands of God (Matt. 15:1–3). Michael Mangis relates this flaw of the Pharisees to sloth, specifically spiritual sloth: “It is easier to check off a list of behaviors than to look into one’s heart and sweep out the corners.”1 The Pharisees were judgmental, seeing sin in others but not in themselves (Matt. 9:10–11; Luke 7:36–39; John 8:3–5). The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable based his righteousness on what he felt he had achieved and his self-righteousness. Then he used his opinion of his own holiness as justification to look down on others, even despising them. He missed the point that holiness comes only by the grace of God, and when that is the source it will bring unity among God’s children not separation. It brings a spirit that is loving, gracious, gentle, and forgiving. It’s not that we don’t discern the presence or absence of spiritual growth in others. It’s what we do with that discernment. Oswald Chambers writes, “When we discern that other people are not growing spiritually and allow that discernment to turn to criticism, we block our fellowship with God. God never gives us discernment so that we may criticize, but that we may intercede.”2
The Pharisee of the parable missed the application of the Great Commandment to love God and love others, or as it has been paraphrased, love God for the sake of others. These commands were presented as inseparable by Jesus. “God cannot look upon a person as just, as long as he despises his neighbour.”3 The tax collector, on the other hand, must have been struck by his lack of holiness beside the holiness of God. He recognized his unworthiness, his sinfulness, and his need for God. “When we set our lives beside the life of Jesus and beside the holiness of God, all that is left to say is, ‘God be merciful to me—the sinner.’”4
The restoration of the image of God is a transformation of the heart, which manifests in external behavior (Matt. 23:26). This teaching may also be found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus concludes this teaching by saying that when the attitudes expressed in these verses exist in a person, he or she is then acting as a true child of the Father in heaven (Matt. 5:45). He summarized these teachings in his final, incredible instruction, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). God created the human heart in his own image so that the human heart might reflect the divine heart. How amazing that Jesus’ admonition that we are to be compassionate (merciful) in Luke 6:36 uses the Father’s character as the model for this behavior. A person who approaches life and its relationships with a heart being formed in this manner does so in a radically different way.
The mistake of the Pharisees is neither rare nor limited in scope. It is a tendency that has plagued religious people in every age. Our purpose here is not to simply criticize or analyze the Pharisees, but to be able to recognize and avoid (or eliminate) these mistakes in our lives. The failings of the Pharisees may easily be the failings of anyone following disciplines of spiritual formation. So, how do we avoid the mistake of the Pharisees? Larry Osborne writes, “We can’t earn our way into God’s favor by meticulously following a moral code—even a biblical one. Our deeds will never be righteous enough. God’s standard of holiness is way beyond our best efforts.”5 That would seem to present a problem. If we can’t earn or develop our own holiness, where does that leave us?
Spiritual formation rooted in self-reference or self-help such as that of the Pharisees is actually rooted in the fallen nature which itself needs to be transformed. Care must be taken to avoid self-reference, even when the focus of the reform is on internal change. Christians can become so wrapped up in how to become better Christians that this becomes the end rather than the means:
Their concern seems mostly to center around self, although they hope that their spiritual growth will automatically osmose into those around them. . . . But the goal of authentic spirituality is a life which escapes from the closed circle of spiritual self-indulgence, or even self-improvement, to become absorbed in the love of God and other persons. For the essence of spiritual renewal is “the love of God . . . poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5 NASB). . . . Religious forms of self-improvement can also generate nervous self-concern and spiritual pride. If growth is built on repressed guilt, or if the means of growth is a set of laws to be followed or an intricate and arduous path to be mastered, spiritual self-centeredness will result.6
When believers are brought to this deeper level of righteousness of which Jesus speaks (Matt. 5:20), they can stop emphasizing lists of activities as of first importance and start thinking about who they are on a deeper level in Christ. We can begin to pray that the love of God be poured into and through our heart. The focus becomes more and more our identity and nature growing out of intimacy with God. The external life will then follow the heart.
The goal is to become absorbed in the love of God and other persons. Sure, we are to practice all of the spiritual disciplines—prayer, fasting, study of the Word, etc. (doing)—but we understand these are means of grace that lead us into an ever-deepening relationship of love with God and others (being). We find this process in Jesus’ words about the true vine in John 15, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit . . .” (v. 5 NRSV). I especially like this use of abide found in many translations. Think of the verbs Jesus could have chosen: persevere, persist, endure, develop, survive, and more. Instead of verbs that might emphasize our actions, he used a verb that emphasizes relationship and trust in him.
Rather than being found in external ritual, denial of self (required in order to be absorbed in the love of God and others) goes to the very core of one’s being, the place where the Holy Spirit meets and transforms believers. This is where a change of heart occurs. “It is not a question of giving up sin, but of giving up my right to myself, my natural independence, and my self-will. This is where the battle has to be fought.”15 Any believer can engage in a self-referenced effort to change, but what is called for is a radical, loving abandonment to God (the first commandment) for the sake of others (the second like it).
Let’s take this one step further. To follow Jesus is to be called to live in courageous faith. It is appropriately applied here. We are invited to ask, “What is the character of the courageous faith that is required to grow in a life of holiness lived as Jesus lived?” Jesus chose humility as the frame for his answer. Humility is a powerful position in life when it means allowing our inexhaustible Father to be the source and sufficiency of our life. This requires us to have the courageous faith to surrender our right to our self, our natural independence, and our self-will. In avoiding the mistake of the Pharisees, we are called to an abiding in Jesus that allows the love of God to be poured out through us. It goes against that natural, fallen self within us and it’s not likely to be appreciated by the world in which we live, but this faith or trust in God is the very core of the spiritual life. Growing in our ability to live in holiness as Jesus lived is a journey we are on together, encouraging each other while remembering the unfailing love our Father in heaven has for us.
Are you interested in learning more about this topic? David Long wrote a book, The Quest for Holiness: From Casual Conviction to Courageous Faith. It’s a work that seeks to help individuals, small groups, and churches lay hold of an an ever-deepening, courageous faith that flows out of a deep trust in God. Get your copy from our store now.
1. Michael W. Mangis, Signature Sins: Taming Our Wayward Hearts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 53.
2. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest: Updated Edition in Today’s Language, ed. James Reimann (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1992), November 23.
3. John J. Kilgallen, SJ, SSD, The Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9–14): The Point? (The Expository Times, Feb. 2003, vol. 114, issue 5): 157–59.
4. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 225.
5. Larry Osborne, Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012])
6. (Richard F. Lovelace, Renewal as a Way of Life: A Guidebook for Spiritual Growth [Eugene, OR: Wipf, 2002], 18–19, emphasis added.)