(Photo by Stevi Phipps)
By Jacqueline Napoli
The idea of winning God’s favor fascinates me probably more than any other idea on earth. It saturates the tenor of everything I do. And I’m grateful He’s given us a salient clue on how to accomplish it: “This is what the LORD says: I show special favor to the humble and contrite, who respect what I have to say,” (Isaiah 66:1-2).
Jesus overflowed with tender mercy to people trapped in all kinds of sin, but He was brutal and downright condemning to the self-righteous Pharisees, even calling them “greedy,” “wicked,” “sons of hell.” Where did they go so wrong? Let’s see how not to be a Pharisee, but instead, win God’s favor.
Pharisees loved VIP seating, ecstatic greetings, venerable titles, and respect. Jesus said they “loved the approval of men more than the approval of God,” (John 12:43). We, too, can get trapped in seeking human approbation through beauty, popularity, possessions, or social media “fame”, instead of winning God over with humility and love. This subtle pride can also manifest within spiritual activity. Going to church, prayer meetings, and outreaches; serving; reading the bible; these are completely right and good, but not if we do them because we want to look “holy” and somehow superior, instead of from a simple love for God.
The woman with the alabaster jar of perfume (Matthew 26; Luke 7) had been forgiven for something serious by Jesus, and she felt compelled to honor Him personally. So she snuck into a distinguished Pharisee’s dinner party where He was, poured perfume on His head, washed his feet in her tears, and wiped them dry with her hair. The lofty retinue glared in disgust, but she intently worshiped, ignoring the condemnation darkening the room.
However, Jesus read the host’s unkind thoughts about her, and rebuked him publicly for failing to greet, anoint, wash, and kiss Him when He entered (standard cultural courtesies of the day, like offering a glass of water), and commending her for doing it with perfume, tears, her hair, and continual kisses. Jesus honored her love and purity, vowing that wherever His gospel would be told, her story would be told as well – her humility and love forever enthroned.
God delights in humility. It doesn’t mind disapproval or looking stupid. It gives all to Jesus, leaving the outcome to Him. And it wins His heart.
A Pharisee generally thinks they are God’s gift to mankind. Jesus told a parable of one praying publicly in the temple, thanking God that he was so righteous and that he was nothing at all like the sinner stationed just a few feet away. The “sinner” in the story knew he was full of unrighteousness, and he beat his breast and begged God to be merciful to him. He was the one God forgave – not the Pharisee.
If we ever catch ourselves gloating that we are so much better than someone else, that’s our cue to drop to our knees and beg God to forgive and change us (contrition). In the very act of regarding anybody at all as “less than,” we drop like a rock to the bottom of the bucket. God detests pride. It blinds us from seeing our own sins. Instead, we fixate on the sins of others. We need to face our sin and turn to God for forgiveness. We must admire, love, serve and cherish every single person, whoever they are. They bear the image of God.
Respecting What God Has to Say
Jesus taught that the Pharisees had “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” when they refused John’s baptism. It would identify them with the crowd – completely unacceptable. But we will never grow to be like Him if we think we know better than He does. Real religion is hearing His words and keeping them, letting them challenge and transform us.
A perfect example is Mary and Joseph. They respected what God had to say. Once they understood the Messiah was to be supernaturally born to Mary (a virgin), they submitted, though it would mean whispers of illegitimacy, dirty looks, and scorn for the rest of their lives. Still, they chose God’s word over all, counting obedience better that human approval.
Humility, contrition, respecting what He has to say. If we focus and work on those things, we can know fully that God is smiling upon us.