Justified in the Sight of Men

And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things; and they scoffed at [Jesus].
And he said unto them, “Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Luke, of all the Gospel writers, spends a decent amount of time chronicling Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees as He is about to head to Jerusalem. We find within this context some of Jesus’ most famous parables and stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the shrewd steward, the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 15:1-16:31). These specific narratives are unique to Luke’s narrative, even if their themes are consistent with the rest of the Gospel authors. Why, as the story of Jesus’ life is reaching its most climactic point, does Luke record all of these discussions?

There is much to be gained from each story on its own merits. Nevertheless, they are told and placed as they are as part of an overall critique, primarily of the Pharisees, exposing the wide gulf between their true condition before God and the righteous appearance they offered to others.

Jesus makes the critique explicit in Luke 16:15. He charges the Pharisees with justifying themselves in the sight of men, honoring what is exalted in the sight of men, as opposed to that which is exalted in the sight of God.

It is easy to hear this critique and consider it in terms of 21st century America, concluding how the Pharisees’ religiosity was not really significant, their worldliness was apparent, and they honored the “secular” over the “spiritual.” In so doing we would be imposing our categories and concepts upon a time and place where they are quite foreign. The Pharisees are not being condemned as secularists; they are being condemned because they continue to justify the type of religiosity that marked Second Temple Judaism in a Gentile world.

All of the parables and stories of this section underscore this critique. The Pharisees murmur about Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2); Jesus responds with the parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the prodigal son/older brother (Luke 15:11-32). It is hard to escape the understanding that Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in terms of the “older brother,” showing the distance between their “entitled” attitude and the merciful love of the Father. In showing distance and alienation from “sinners,” the Pharisees are maintaining a “righteous” attitude that looked down upon all defilement and transgression; they were trying, at some level, to remain unstained from defilement, and to maintain holiness. Yet this was a socially acceptable type of exclusion; that is how they could get away with it and still be honored as the “righteous” in society.

The Pharisees’ scoffing in Luke 16:14 is related to the parable of the shrewd steward (Luke 16:1-12) and the declaration that a man cannot serve two masters, both God and money (Luke 16:13). Luke condemns the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:13), and his condemnation is just. Nevertheless, this idea was pervasive throughout society at that time. After all, God blesses those whom He loves and causes affliction for those who disobey Him; how many proverbs were written indicating the honor of wealth and the shame of poverty? Even the disciples go along with this “conventional wisdom,” expressing complete astonishment at Jesus’ declaration of the difficulty for the wealthy to be saved, wondering how anyone could thus be saved if the rich were not (Luke 18:23-26)! Therefore, the Pharisees’ love of money was entirely in line with conventional thinking of the day, no doubt married with a sense of upright piety.

Jesus will continue on with declarations about the Law and Prophets being until John, how people seeking to enter the Kingdom, and yet how nothing would be modified in the Law until all was fulfilled (Luke 16:16-17), a declaration regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Luke 16:18), and then the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The Pharisees presume to understand the Law and the Prophets and thus the will of God, and yet in their declarations they add to and subtract from the Law, focus more on the technical legality of the Law than the intentions of its Author, and otherwise find ways to justify their desires with a distorted understanding of the Law as opposed to serving God through the Law according to God’s intentions.

In the end, the Pharisees were externally everything every first century Israelite would expect from a holy person. And yet they remained separated from God, exalting what was abominable in His sight.

We do well to consider Luke’s focus on these conversations and what it shows about the Pharisees, lest we walk in the same path toward destruction. As we seek holiness and righteousness in conduct (cf. 1 Peter 1:14-16), it becomes easy to feel superior to those who are “sinners” and who are “defiled by the world,” and seek to fully separate from them and condemn them. That may be what men expect, and one can certainly seek to justify such behavior in the sight of men with constant appeals to “holiness” and “withdrawal from evil,” but since it entirely neglects humility, love, kindness, compassion, and mercy, such is abominable in the sight of God. It also proves quite easy to honor wealth and the love of money and even do so with religious motivations and with a pious veneer; there will always be many who will have no qualms with the pretense of religion cloaking a covetous and greedy spirit. Yet the love of money remains the root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and we do not do well if we seek to minimize the impact of Jesus’ lamentation of how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven in Luke 18:24-25.

It is also easy to view Scripture like the Pharisees did: a source of justification for whatever thoughts, desires, or actions we seek to justify. In such situations the conclusion is never in doubt. The justification may persuade men, but it dishonors God and shows who really is in control. If God is the center of our existence and we seek to please Him, then we will allow His message in Scripture to change us into conformity with Jesus (Romans 8:29). This is not a matter of the spirit of the message or the letter of the message, but the proper marriage of both the spirit and the letter of what God has revealed in Scripture. There is a reason why Jesus first declared that it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a tittle of the Law to fall and then to speak about marriage and divorce (Luke 16:17-18): the Pharisees might have been technically accurate with some of their interpretations, but by missing the entire intention of God as revealed in other Scriptures, they were justifying things which were contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Matthew 19:1-9).

Many falsely reason that if we focus on the “spirit” of the message, we will be led to compromise or minimize the importance of the “letter” of the message. In reality, as the examples of Jesus and the Pharisees show, by understanding the “spirit” of the message, we will honor it to the “letter”; it is by focusing on the “letter” to the exclusion of the “spirit” which will more often lead us astray, just as it did the Pharisees. And yet it all goes back to our intentions. Do we seek to honor self in the pretense of honoring God or to honor God as God and follow after Him? Are we seeking to look righteous in our current predicament, using elaborate justifications to persuade men of our religiosity, while God remains remote and unimpressed?

We can know the answer by how we react to the message of Jesus’ parables and stories. Do we feel the joy of the people who lost their sheep or coin? Can we feel thankful for the merciful love of the Father for both the prodigal son and the older brother? Do we understand how love of God and love of money are mutually exclusive? Do we sympathize with Lazarus? Or do we feel as if the people who found the sheep and coin are irrationally exuberant? Do we feel the Father is acting shamefully in how He welcomes the prodigal son? Do we chafe at the idea that the love of money and love of God are mutually exclusive? Is our sympathy more directed toward the rich man?

Do we want the justification of men that passes away or the justification that comes from God as His humble servant, trusting in Christ the Lord? Let us seek the latter and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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