The scope of this parable likewise is prefixed to it, and we are told (v. 9) who they were whom it was levelled at, and for whom it was calculated. He designed it for the conviction of some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. They were such as had,
1. A great conceit of themselves, and of their own goodness; they thought themselves as holy as they needed to be, and holier than all their neighbours, and such as might serve for examples to them all. But that was not all;
2. They had a confidence in themselves before God, and not only had a high opinion of their own righteousness, but depended upon the merit of it, whenever they addressed God, as their plea: They trusted in themselves as being righteous; they thought they had made God their debtor, and might demand any thing from him; and,
3. They despised others, and looked upon them with contempt, as not worthy to be compared with them.
Now Christ by this parable would show such their folly, and that thereby they shut themselves out from acceptance with God. This is called a parable, though there be nothing of similitude in it; but it is rather a description of the different temper and language of those that proudly justify themselves, and those that humbly condemn themselves; and their different standing before God. It is matter of fact every day.
Thus wrote Matthew Henry (or one of his students).
I have no quibble with points 1 and 3 (except that I’m not sure they are really two distinct points). What strikes me is how entirely imaginary number 2 is. It is nowhere in the text. It is completely arbitrary to put that construction on “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”
Let’s just be clear. Is the following a reliance on one’s own merit?
Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.
Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.
And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. Therefore I chased him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have desecrated the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering at appointed times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.
Or how about this?
The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!
My shield is with God,
who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day…
The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.
For you save a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down.
Notice that last bit may form part of the basis of Jesus teaching in his parable. But the fact remains that simply pointing out one’s righteousness before God proves nothing about relying on one’s own merit.
Could it be that we need to get out doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ from places where the Bible actually teaches it? Romans 3 and 4 anyone? The simple teaching here is that one is not righteous unless one is humble. Paul warns Christians about exactly the same thing, using unbelieving Judaism as his example.
And there is something more. The Pharisee says that he fasts twice a week. He says this out loud. We can assume he fasts the way Jesus said most Pharisees fast. And even if not, by boasting in public in his “prayer” he is sinning according to Jesus:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The issue is not that the Pharisee is doing righteous deeds which he then trusts as the ground of his standing before God. The issue is that the Pharisees deeds are actually unrighteous and are a contrivance for pride and arrogance. But that same pride means that he won’t trust what Jesus says about his deeds. Rather he trusts in himself that he knows what is right and that he should continue in this public vaunting via fasting and look down on others.
This means the Pharisee is condemned even though he acknowledges that his “righteousness” is God’s gift, not of his own doing. His grace theology is genuine but it is misdirected. God does not want to be viewed as the source of boasting.
The Pharisee does not say that he tithes what he earns or the increase of his labors. Rather, he says, “I give tithes of all that I get.” From secular sources it is probable that the Pharisees felt they had to tithe everything they procured because the person from whom they received goods might not have tithed on those items. This would also mean one could not eat untithed food which would bar table fellowship. The secular historical evidence certainly fits this scenario. For example:
to distinguish between foods fit or unfit for Pharisaic table fellowship, the Mishnah suggests that the Pharisees used the terms “_hullin” (non-priestly, properly tithed and “terumah-ed” food), “ma’aser” or “me’usarin” (tithed food or produce), “demai” (doubtfully tithed food), or “tevel” (certainly untithed food). For a Pharisee, making these verbal, conceptual, and physical separations, would have been functionally equivalent to explicitly asserting one’s identity as Pharisee. [bold added]
So here again I think it is likely that the Pharisee’s deeds, which he thinks are righteous and a sign of God’s grace in his life, are actually the kind of wicked zealotry that creates unnecessary divisions that God condemns.
They are also economically oppressive. How many people in Israel could afford to give up ten percent of everything they bought?
The Pharisee is publicly thanking God and giving God credit for habitual sins that he commits. The tax collector is asking God to be merciful to a sinner.
Now does this contrast have something to say about depending on Christ’s righteousness alone for our standing before God rather than the alleged merit of our own works. Sure it does. That is called application. But it is not in the text and we should not impute alien ideas into Bible passages.