Everybody’s got junk. Our closets are filled with junk, our basements are filled with junk, and our garages are filled with junk. And our lives are filled with junk. To clean the junk out of your closets, basements and garages, it will take you and perhaps a team of people working together to sort, clean out and throw away the junk.
But cleaning out the junk in your mind, heart, words and actions happens in a remarkably different way. God cleans out the junk for you!
This powerful truth is what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day totally missed. They were very zealous, working hard to do the right things all of the time. Yet they did not realize that pride had crept into their lives, causing their mind, heart and words to be corrupt even when their actions looked good on the outside. They were trying to justify themselves, thinking that they could clean out their junk on their own and make themselves right in God’s eyes. But they could not. Their righteousness was like filthy rags when compared to God’s holiness.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: 10 “Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The prideful Pharisee. In the parable that Jesus relates, the first person we see praying is a Pharisee. He stands and prays aloud so that everyone can hear him, telling God how he much he fasts and how much money he gives. He is really impressed with himself. He compares himself to other people, having the audacity to point out the sins of other people in his prayer. This Pharisee is so prideful that he misses the fact that compared to a perfect, holy God he is imperfect, unholy and in need of God’s forgiveness.
The penitent tax collector. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were shrewd, greedy businessmen. The Roman government required them to collect taxes from people but whatever they collected above that amount went into their own pockets. In His parable, Jesus says that a tax collector was also at the temple praying. However, the tax collector prays much differently than the Pharisee. The tax collector is aware of his sinfulness, of all the junk in his life. He does not even look up to heaven as he prays. He beats his chest in repentance and cries out to God for forgiveness and mercy.
The powerful words of Jesus. The introduction to the parable in verse 9 tells us why Jesus told the story: it was to make a point to those who were trusting in themselves and looking down on everyone else. Jesus clearly states which of the two men in the story went home justified (think: “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned — that’s a helpful way to remember the meaning of justified). The person who went home justified was the penitent tax collector, the one who acknowledged the junk in his life and asked for God’s mercy. The person who went home not justified was the prideful Pharisee, who overlooked his own junk while pointing out the sinfulness of others. As Jesus says, the one who humbles himself will be exalted and the one who exalts himself will be humbled.
The Pharisee did not remember the words of Isaiah. Isaiah reminds us that compared to our holy, perfect God even our best efforts are like a polluted garment, filthy rags. A polluted garment is one that is filled with every kind of dirt and junk you can imagine.
6 All of us have become like something unclean, and all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment; all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind.
What the Pharisee needed to see is what the tax collector clearly saw: God will turn his wrath away from us if we cry out to Him from a penitent heart. And God will raise us up (exalt us) to live for Him with a pure heart.
Application for our lives. Where do you see yourself in the story? Let us have the humble attitude that we see reflected in the tax collector, grateful to God for His forgiveness and mercy, grateful that He has lifted us up to live for Him, grateful that He has cleaned out the junk in our lives. And, daily let us lean on Him for strength and guidance to live a life of holiness and faithfulness to Him, not comparing ourselves to anyone else. God will help them with their junk.