Two men went to the temple court to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (Lk. 18:9-14). The Pharisee would be viewed as a pillar within the community, an ardent patriot, and a respected citizen of the highest character. On the other hand, the tax collector would be viewed as a traitor to his fellow Jews and the off scouring of his community. However, it was he who was justified rather than the Pharisee. Why was the Pharisee lost? Why did God not accept him?
He was lost because he trusted in his good character to save him. His prayer was an essay in self-congratulation. He first congratulated himself on his virtues of omission – that he was not a robber, an evildoer, an adulterer, or even as the tax collector. Having listed his abstentions from wrong, the Pharisee next informed heaven of his virtues of commission – he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of everything he gained. Measured by other men, he towered above them. It had not occurred to him to measure himself by the sky. A mountain shames a molehill until both are humbled by the stars. The Pharisee’s virtue was so cankered by pride that it was almost rotten. Good character is an important part of the Christian life, but it is not the basis of justification before God (Isa. 64:6).
He was lost because he trusted in the performance of religious observances to save him. The Pharisee fasted twice a week though the only obligatory fast was on the annual observance of the Day of Atonement. It was believed that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai on Monday to receive the Ten Commandments and descended on Thursday; thus, many Pharisees set these two days aside as days of fasting. In like manner, many people today trust in religious observances to justify themselves before a holy God. To many, it matters little that the observances may only be mere inventions of men. The only thing that matters to them is that the activity has a religious emphasis. Like Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10) they fail to see the importance of doing what God says in the way He says it is to be done. In the case of others, they are careful to observe only that which is authorized by God. However, they do not possess the right attitude or disposition of mind in their observance (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27-31; John 4:24). Both are wrong. Merely engaging in the observation of certain religious acts does not justify a person before God (cf. Amos 5:21-24). We must be careful to only engage in religious activities authorized by God and to do so with the proper motivation.
He was lost because he trusted in his good deeds to save him. Good works are absolutely essential to a vital faith (Jas. 2:26). It is one thing to do them, but quite another to depend upon them as the basis of our justification (Eph. 2:8-9). The mercy of God as demonstrated in the gift of His Son is the foundation of our salvation (Tit. 3:5).
All that can be said about the Pharisee’s goodness is that it was negative. Even his fasting and tithing were negative things because they consisted in giving up certain things. That is the reverse of true goodness. Sadly, the religious life of many people consists entirely of prohibitions. Such results in a negative life and is only half the story.