Taking the Low Ground

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought during the first week of July in 1863. If you are familiar with Michael Shaara’s historical novel, The Killer Angels, or have seen the 1993 film Gettysburg, you know that the struggle for Little Round Top was the turning point at Gettysburg, which many historians consider the most pivotal battle in the entire Civil War.

Photo of Little Round Top by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1863

Little Round Top was a hill that became recognized by both armies as a critically strategic high ground in the conflict. If the Confederates had secured the hill, they would have been able to cut off the Union’s left flank, win the battle, and possibly the entire war.

However, history records that just as the Confederates were about to take the hill from the outmanned and out of ammunition 20th Maine Regiment, Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain ordered his men to attach bayonets to their rifles. When the dust cleared, the 20th Maine had secured the high ground.

It was a brutal, deadly, costly victory.

The pursuit of the high ground is an advisable and necessary tactic in a conventional war. But it is not advisable in relational conflict.

Nevertheless, when we face marriage skirmishes, roommate conflicts, or workplace strife, we tend to go for the high ground. Not the topographical high ground but the moral high ground.

The moral high ground is the place from which I am able to declare my rightness. It is the position from which I can win.

But as we learn from military engagements like Gettysburg, winning the high ground often results in terrible casualties.

Which is why the gospel calls us as followers of Jesus to take the low ground. But the low ground is the place from which armies lose battles.

“I don’t want to lose. I want to win!”

And therein lies the problem. My need to win. My demand to be right and validated in my rightness — my righteousness — whether it is an issue in marriage, in the dorm, or at the office. It might be a debate over theology, politics, or sports. It could be something as simple as fixing the sink, cooking burgers, or deciding where to go eat on vacation.

Whatever it is, we love to be right. We love to win. So we fight for the high ground.

In Jesus’ day, a very religious group of Jews known as Pharisees loved the high ground, too. We see an example of their need to be King of the Hill in Luke 18:9–14, where Jesus tells a story comparing two men, one who takes the high ground and the other who takes the low ground.

What I want us to see is that taking the low ground is not the place of defeat, but a place from which we experience an unexpected victory.

It is where we are reconciled with God and how relationships are restored and are enabled to thrive. Not from the high ground but from the low ground.

This is what we learn in Luke 18, where, in verses 9–10, we are introduced first to…

1) The Audience

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

My senior year in high school, our football team was ranked #1 in the state during the pre-season polls and was predicted to go undefeated. Being overconfident in ourselves and underestimating our opponents, not only did we lose our opening game, we didn’t even make the playoffs.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had a similar sense of overconfidence. Not in their athletic superiority but in moral superiority. With inner motives for being known as “good people,” they were scrupulous about external sin management, wanting to be seen as holy men with whom God must be very pleased.

This is the audience of Jesus’ short story about two men who go to pray in the Jewish Temple located in the heart of Jerusalem.

In verses 11–12, Jesus begins the contrast between the two men with…

2) The Pharisee’s Prayer

11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I get.’

His prayer actually begins well, doesn’t it? “God, I thank you.”

But what is the source of his gratitude? Is it reconciliation with God because of a substitutionary sacrifice that has been given to atone for his sin? No. His focus is on his own moral superiority over other people.

Did you count the times he acknowledges God vs how many times he references himself? After beginning with God, he features himself five times — claiming the moral high ground by focusing on his own record — the bad things he avoids and the good things he does.

The Pharisee is the hero of his own prayer.

Before we dismiss this as a caricature of antiquated self-righteousness, we should keep in mind that the Pharisee spirit is alive and well today.

How do we know whether we have been infected with this spirit? It is written for us in verse 9. The self-righteous, condescending, self-important Pharisee spirit seeks the high ground so it can “looked down on everyone else.”

It is the spirit of feeling morally superior to others.

Just like the Pharisee looked down on the other man in the story, pointing him out for us as “this tax collector.”

In verse 13, Jesus continues his story by contrasting the Pharisee’s prayer with...

3) The Tax Collector’s Prayer

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

We’ve described in previous messages how tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews for a number of reasons that included political treason, religious apostasy, financial greed, and general immorality.

On the surface, the Pharisee sure looks holier than the tax collector. But let’s look more deeply into the heart of the two men.

  • One looks up with moral confidence. The other looks down in moral defeat.
  • One boasts in himself. The other beats himself.
  • One appeals to his own merits. The other pleads for God’s mercy.

If you have heard anyone teach on this passage before, it is likely that they drew your attention to a textual detail that requires a knowledge of Greek to detect. Usually, familiarity with the original Greek text of the New Testament is not necessary in order to glean the clear meaning of a passage. However, in this case, when the tax collector beseeches God for mercy, he doesn’t merely call himself “a” sinner.

Actually, he indicts himself as “the” sinner.

He is a robber. He is an evildoer. He is an adulterer, if not in act at least in thought. He has been dominated by greed, gluttony, lust, materialism, and the self-sufficiency of being a wealthy man.

But under the gracious conviction of the Spirit, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

He has come to the Temple, as if to a police station, to turn himself in and plead guilty to all charges.

Verse 13 is his written confession, composed from the low ground.

With this confession, the story of the two men at prayer in the Temple comes to an unexpected and abrupt close in verse 14 with…

4) A Definitive Ruling

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Remember the audience. The Pharisees assumed they stood upon the moral high ground where the flood of judgment upon sin could not reach.

David spoke of this “high ground” in Psalm 32:1–7, where he writes,

1 Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2 Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. 3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. 7 You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.

In this Psalm of David, he reveals who actually stands upon the high ground, safe from the rising waters. It is not the one who appeals to his own record of righteousness but the one who confesses his record of unrighteousness.

Isn’t this precisely what we see in the tax collector’s prayer? The more he dug in his heels the greater the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him, pressing in with tough love until he was ready to confess.

Finally, he is broken of his stubborn sin-denying, self-justifying ways. Once broken, he is able to pray with raw honesty. No pretense. Crying out from the depth of his being and finding his prayer answered with an unreserved, overwhelming, “Yes!”

Jesus says that the tax collector “went home justified.”

Justified? What does this mean?

The Greek word for justified is a courtroom term that was used by a judge to render a not guilty verdict. But it is more than that in the courtroom of God, where we are declared not only innocent but righteous — not just as if we had avoided sin, but as if we had perfectly obeyed all the law all the time.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism put it like this:

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us which is received by faith alone.”

The definitive ruling that Jesus renders is that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, is the one who is justified in the courtroom of God.

By assuming the moral high ground, this religiously conscientious Pharisee, who was so confident that he was justified, he went home unjustified. In his spiritual blindness, he is unforgiven, unreconciled — deceived by self-righteousness.

Remember, the Temple was the center of sacrifice in Judaism. It wasn’t intended to be a place of boasting in self but of confessing sin and receiving mercy. From the beginning, God’s message to humanity had always been, “You need a perfect, blemish-free substitute to suffer your sin-debt in order to be reconciled to God.”

Cosmic justice demanded that the penalty for treason be paid — the sentence of death.

All the sacrifices that took place in the Jewish Temple pointed to the final sacrifice, where the penalty would be paid by Jesus upon the altar of a cross outside of Jerusalem.

It is because of the cross that you and I, like the tax collector, may go home justified, free from accusation and reconciled with God.

Practically, this means four things:

1) I can be honest about my moral condition.

No more pretense. No more need for double-life hypocrisy. I am the sinner. I am the sinner in my marriage. In my family. In the dorm and at the office.

But I am the sinner who has a Savior. So…

2) I don’t have to win.

Because when we go home justified, we no longer need to justify ourselves by fighting for the high ground.

I don’t have to win the argument. I can be wrong.

Imagine the difference in your marriage if you took the low ground. Instead of fighting to win the argument, what if you pursued a posture of listening, empathizing, repenting, and sometimes even agreeing?

But I’m still going to blow it. I don't’ want to blow it. But when I do…

3) I don’t have to beat myself up.

Whatever it is I want to beat myself up about, he was beaten for me — for that. The only way to be rescued from self-condemnation is to look to the cross, where God’s righteous anger upon my sin was exhausted through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

On the cross, wrath was exchanged for mercy.

This means…

4) God isn’t angry with me.

In fact, the reality is just the opposite. Remember the parable of the lost son — the prodigal? When he came home from squandering his inheritance, how was he greeted? By his father’s embrace!

What if you believed that? That you could come home today to the embrace of the Father.

Last year, the Oregonian newspaper ran a headline that read, “The Curious Case of Moe Harkless.” Moe plays for the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA.

Formerly a starter, halfway through the season, he didn’t only lose his starting position but was taken out of the player rotation entirely.

He had fallen from starter to scrub.

Rather than cheer for his teammates from the sideline, he would just sit on the end of the bench wearing a warmup hoodie pulled tightly over his face.

But soon, something changed.

As Moe Harkless tells the story, his transformation after being pulled from the rotation began by watching the video of the Trailblazers win against the Phoenix Suns, which was a virtual highlight reel of stunning plays that caused the area to erupt with cheers.

But not Moe. With a scowl, he sat motionlessly. Arms folded. He didn’t even bother standing to participate in timeout huddles.

As the team reviewed the video of that game, Moe finally saw himself. He finally saw himself and didn’t like what he saw.

After practice that night, he texted the coach and said he needed to address the team the following day.

He wanted to apologize. He had been a poor teammate and was sorry for how he had hurt the team.

The other guys rallied around Moe with forgiveness and support.

Although he didn’t see any significant playing time for the next six games, he began to stand on the sideline to encourage and cheer for the guys who were out on the floor.

Eventually, he not only gained playing time but became a starter again, leading to his greatest production as a pro and catapulting the Trailblazers to a 13-game win streak and a spot in the playoffs.

Moe Harkless took the low ground and it made all the difference.

Now, it’s your move.

Are you going to take the high ground or the low ground? Those are the two options we face every day. Will I live my life tethered to the cross of Jesus? Or not.

It is a daily decision that stems from God’s promise demonstrated in Luke 18 and reiterated in passages like 1 John 1:9, where the apostle John says,

“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

You see, Jesus took the low ground first so that we can take the low ground, with confidence that it is not the place of defeat, but a place from which we experience unexpected victory — it is where God’s grace defeats my self-righteousness and changes everything.

Listen to the audio podcast of this post here.