I consider myself a basically nice person. Being nice is an important value that I have held from childhood. Basically being as nice as I can be has really worked well for me. You don’t want to be like the mean kids. I smile a lot. I like to think of myself as nice. You might imagine me as a nice person; however, no one sees me as Jesus does. He knows when the motive behind my niceness is not about others or Him at all. He knows when I am using niceness to get people to like me.
Jesus told one of His convicting stories (parables) about this very reality in Luke 18:9-14. It was a story about two men who were praying; I guess that’s where he monitors our contempt for others best. We may be able to disguise our contempt for others in a variety of ways, but it comes spilling out when we try to pray.
Jesus is God, after all; and He knew the motivation behind all the prayers and religious acts. The people Jesus told the parable to were described in verse 9: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” Self-righteousness will get you nowhere spiritually. It might motivate pious acts, but none matter much to Jesus. All those works go up in smoke according to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15:
“If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
Jesus is looking for humility—the kind that says “But for the grace of God there go I”. We should not put confidence in our acts of obedience but in the God who makes our obedience possible. In Jesus’ parable, one man left the time of prayer in the temple justified, and one man left carrying the heavy burden of sin. One man cried out to God for mercy; while the other man focused on His religious works and the fact that he +was better than the man crying out for mercy. I wonder if any of those listening to Jesus tell this parable that day, oozing with contempt, could have missed their blatant guilt. Too bad for them if they didn’t; guilt would have led to a cry for mercy and then they could have left justified too.
A good way to test yourself since you cannot see yourself the way God can see you is the test of your contempt factor. It was the contempt for others Jesus saw in them that motivated Him to tell this parable. The parable wasn’t a put down to the people there exuding confidence based on their works and disdain of people they didn’t consider as good as themselves. It really matters to Jesus how we treat people. He cares how we treat those who serve us, those who we work for, our family, our pastors, literally everyone. Parables are spoken to teach spiritual truths. The point of this parable is that we all need to have confidence in God and prove it by not judging or looking down on others. It’s human to exalt ourselves and look down on others. It is divine to exalt God and treat others well.