Taking the Low Ground, Part 2

Pursuit of the high ground may be an advisable strategy in conventional warfare. But in every other context, that tactic can be disastrous. Let's explore what could change if you took the low ground.

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For part 2 of Taking the Low Ground, we wade into the parable Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14 about a Pharisee and tax collector in the Temple. If you missed yesterday’s intro, check it out here.

If you are ready, let’s dive in!

The Audience

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

My senior year in high school, our football team was ranked #1 in the state during the pre-season polls and was predicted to go undefeated. Being overconfident in ourselves and underestimating our opponents, not only did we lose our opening game, we didn’t even make the playoffs.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had a similar sense of overconfidence. Not in their athletic superiority but in moral superiority. With inner motives for being known as “good people,” they were scrupulous about external sin management, wanting to be seen as holy men with whom God must be very pleased.

This is the audience of Jesus’ short story about two men who go to pray in the Jewish Temple located in the heart of Jerusalem.

In verses 11–12, Jesus begins the contrast between the two men with…

The Pharisee’s Prayer

11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I get.’

His prayer actually begins well, doesn’t it? “God, I thank you.”

But what is the source of his gratitude? Is it reconciliation with God because of a substitutionary sacrifice that has been given to atone for his sin? No. His focus is on his own moral superiority over other people.

Did you count the times he acknowledges God vs how many times he references himself? After beginning with God, he features himself five times — claiming the moral high ground by focusing on his own record — the bad things he avoids and the good things he does.

The Pharisee is the hero of his own prayer.

Before we dismiss this as a caricature of antiquated self-righteousness, we should keep in mind that the Pharisee spirit is alive and well today.

A Moral Delusion

How do we know whether we have been infected with this spirit? It is written for us in verse 9. The self-righteous, condescending, self-important Pharisee spirit seeks the high ground so it can “look down on everyone else.” It is the spirit of feeling morally superior to others, which of course is really a moral delusion.

For the Pharisee, he would feel superior to the “tax collector.” Just fill in the blank with whomever it is you tend to despise. “Thank you, God, that I’m not like ______________.”

In verse 13, Jesus continues his story by contrasting the Pharisee’s prayer with the low-life’s prayer.

Just a heads up. Jesus really likes the tax collector’s prayer, as it is honest, raw, and without pretense moral superiority of any kind. In fact, just the opposite is true. We’ll pick up there in tomorrow’s post, and behold grace flowing downhill.

Until then, may grace abound. 🙏🏼

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