Thanksgiving Day is tomorrow. As you sit down to eat, will you take some time to share the reasons you are thankful? What will it sound like? “God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers… I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Wow, that sounds arrogant, doesn’t it? Actually, this “prayer” comes from the Bible, Luke 18:11-12, not as a model of how to pray, but as a warning.
Jesus is teaching using one of His favorite techniques, the parable. A parable is simply a story used to make a spiritual point. Here, Jesus gives us 2 characters, a Pharisee (a well-regarded spiritual leader in the community), and a tax collector (a despised member of the community seen as a traitor and a cheat). Both go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prays, giving us a glimpse of his heart, thanking God that he is not like “those people”, those sinners he lives among. Especially, he thanks God he is not like the tax collector standing nearby. Self-righteousness and conceit ooze from this so-called religious leader.
Then Jesus shifts attention to the tax collector. “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13) This man recognized who is truly is. He was able to see and understand his own heart, a true grace from God. Unable to boast in himself, he comes to God pleading mercy. And Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” (Luke 18:14)
When studying a parable it is important to understand the audience being addressed. Here we are told Jesus is speaking to, “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9) If there ever was a parable prime for Americans, this is it. We may be thankful for our families, jobs, homes, etc. But we would also be quick to say that we worked hard for all of it. Right? So we deserve all of it. “God, I am thankful I am a hard worker. That I have saved enough to provide for my family and to buy all of those toys we love so much. I am thankful I am not like those lazy, homeless people who just need to get a job already and stop wasting all of their money on drugs.” What about those sentiments? Perhaps we wouldn’t say them out-loud, but have we thought them? Do we live like that?
It’s not the point of the parable or my modern rendering of it to make us all feel like dirt. Rather, it should help us identify any self-righteousness in our own hearts. We should be thankful for everything we have, but we shouldn’t think it is solely by our own power or hard work that we have obtained anything. In fact, true thankfulness overflows from the understanding that we are all 100% dependent on God for all things. True thankfulness is what pours out of our hearts when we start to understand who God is, not only what He provides. True thankfulness takes the attention off ourselves and puts it on God, where it belongs.
Finally, the parable also points to the fact that self-righteousness is not the root issue but merely a symptom of the bigger problem. The real issue is that mankind is so dead in sin that we cannot come to God with any righteousness of our own. Thinking we may gain eternal life by doing so is foolish. The people Jesus is speaking to in this parable were trusting in themselves, believing they were righteous and thus merited favor with God on account of their own goodness. Jesus spins that whole idea on its head. In reality, God says any righteousness we think we have on our own account is really more like filthy rags, only good to be thrown out. (Isaiah 64:6) Instead, Jesus calls for us to recognize our sin, our failings before a holy and just God, and to give up trying to earn anything on our own merit. We must trust in Christ, His sacrifice upon the cross, and that through it we can receive His righteousness through faith. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus ends the parable, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Humble yourself today before God and pray that He will lift you up.
Make this Thanksgiving a day where you don’t just eat oversized portions of food, but a day to spend time thanking and praising God for who He is and how He provides for you daily. Stop trying to give the world the impression that you are so great, or thinking you can make it to heaven because of all that you do is so good. Rather, recognize your failings. God is in the business of saving broken people. Only then will you be able to truly say you are a thankful person.
By Pastor Nick Jones
Maranatha Baptist Church
1320 E. Saguaro Dr. Globe, AZ