The Two Boasts: The Pharisee and St. Paul

Speaking of justification (see this morning’s post), there was a point I wanted to make about last Sunday’s readings that I never got around to.  Like my other post on these readings, this was something that we talked about in Men’s Group, and I can’t take much credit for these insights.  The Gospel is Luke 18:9-14

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity –greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Second Reading, however is from 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18:

Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.


At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

At first, it seems like Paul is behaving like the Pharisee: boasting at how well he’d competed, how well he’s kept the faith, and how God, since He is just, will now be rewarding him with a crown of righteousness.  But if you pay closer attention, there’s a world of difference. Rather, Paul directs all glory to God, “forever and ever, Amen.”  And the reason Paul knows he’s saved isn’t by his own merits (like the Pharisee), but by the merits of his faith, and his complete trust in the saving work of God.  He says things like “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,” describes himself as a mere instrument of God through which the Gospel might be proclaimed, and places his trust squarely on the Lord: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.”  And Paul makes clear that he’s already been rescued “from the lion’s mouth,” quite possibly a reference to sin and Satan (1 Peter 5:8).  And what’s saving Paul is his faith and hope, that he (and all the saved) are longing for the Lord, as he notes in v. 8. 

Protestants tend to get this point quite well, which is great.  But there’s another side of which they tend to get less well: even though Paul’s strength comes from God, he’s still got to use that strength.  He speaks in the first person when he says, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”  This sort of language often makes Protestants uneasy, since it can sound a lot like “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”  It’s not: Paul’s is a praiseworthy boast in Christ (since the good he’s doing is, as he notes, the result of the strength God has given him), while the Pharisee is proud of his own merits apart from God.

The difference is summed up in the last line of the Gospel: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  The Pharisee exalted himself, while Paul recognized that God exalted him – an exaltation which happened after God first humbled him.  Paul explains this himself in Phillippians 3:1-14.  He first proclaims the Catholic camp as superior to the party of circumcision, since the Catholics were spiritually circumcised: “it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” He then explains that if anyone could have confidence in the flesh, it would have been him (v. 4-5), but that while keeping the law, he was zealously persecuting the Church (v. 6).Verse 7-11 are beautiful:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

This is a beautiful description of justification by faith instead of our own merits.  But Paul immediately follows it up with a call to pursue Christ: to follow Him.  And that’s where works (as acts of faith) come in:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

So to be saved, believe in Christ and follow Him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *