“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:10-14
To exalt means to elevate, raise high. It implies the depreciation of all else. The word may only receive limited usage in our language, but we do it all the time. Every day, in every conversation, in all that we do, we are exalting something or someone. The subjects we bring up, how freely we forward our opinion, the things we are enthusiastic about, that which we spend money and time on, all elevate or raise high that which we believe far more than that which we might represent in an official capacity.
The two characters in Jesus’ parable are perfect illustrations of this truth. The Pharisee’s official position would certainly have been that he believed in and exalted God above all else. He even begins his prayer by addressing the Almighty. Yet everything that followed was an exaltation of himself. Whoever the god was that he thought he was speaking to, it was not Yahweh, the great I AM, the One before Whom truly righteous men fall on their faces in fear and awe. He was in no way talking to the Lord, high and lifted up, whom Isaiah saw…and cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5) At best, the Pharisee was praying to a god of his own imagination. The original language of the story hints at the likely scenario: the line that indicates that he ‘prayed about himself’ could just as easily be translated that he ‘prayed to himself’. Whatever else, he neither prayed to nor exalted God.
The tax collector, on the other hand, came with an elevated view of God. He knew quite well that God was holy and he was not. He knew he did not come to God with merit or claim. Instead, he came with a contrite heart, seeking the mercy of the One from whom he needed it most. His prayer was pure exaltation of God, acknowledging His high place in the same breath that he acknowledged his own lowly one.
If any of this does not sit well with your sensibilities, please let me just point back at Jesus’ conclusion to the story. Who came appropriately before God? Who went home justified and in right relationship with Him? If we are trying to learn to come before God, we must give sober consideration to this issue of exaltation and choose to exalt God. Do not simply drop His Name at proper moments. Elevate Him above all else, especially yourself.