READ : Luke 18:9-10
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
Luke 18:9,10 RSV
Here’s another of the stories of Jesus that come to us with a special bonus. We learn at the outset just who Jesus had in mind when He told it. Listen: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” Now that’s an interesting target audience, isn’t it? How many people, do you suppose, would see themselves as fitting that description? These are people who believe that their own performance can win them heaven’s favor. They don’t claim to be without fault, of course. “Nobody’s perfect,” they acknowledge. But they’re confident that on balance, their good deeds will outweigh the bad and they’ll pass the test in whatever judgment day they may face.
What strengthens them in this belief is what they see in the people around them. They admit that some things in their own lives are not all that they should be, but they certainly don’t commit some of the evils their neighbors do. They draw some degree of comfort from that comparison. “I’m not like him . . . I’m not like her, I must be doing okay.”
Now it’s not only very religious or highly moral people who are tempted to think in this way. I knew a man long years ago in a little New Jersey town. His name was Pete. He lived in a tiny makeshift dwelling in back of the fire house. Pete was thought of as the town drunk. No one could remember his having worked, and he was said to have a somewhat unsavory past. He would often walk by our front yard. Sometimes we got into a conversation. He said something one day about our children and how he would never hurt one of them. He spoke of how cruel and heartless someone would have to be to abuse a child. He certainly, he said, would never do anything like that! I picked up that strain in Pete’s conversation on a number of occasions. He might not be the best person in the world, he admitted, but there were some things others were doing that he would never stoop to. His confidence that he was acceptable seemed to go hand in hand with his conviction that others were a lot worse.
None of us is really immune to the tendency to think in that way, are we? For our part, we may look at the “Petes” of our society as a few rungs beneath us in moral standing. We may persuade ourselves as a result that we are surely better than average. God will surely take into account, we half assume, that we have done a better job of measuring up than a lot of the people we know.
So let’s not be sure at the start that this story of Jesus has nothing to say to us. In fact, I’ll be very surprised if you and I don’t see ourselves somewhere in it as we listen. Here’s the parable, just as Jesus told it. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 18, at verse 10:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!'”
That’s the story, and here’s the comment Jesus made after He told it. “I tell you, this man [that is, the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
A FIRST GLANCE
Here is a story fraught with surprises. It starts out with two men at opposite ends of the moral scale, at least in the view of most people. First is the Pharisee, a member of a group generally regarded as the most pious and upright in all Israel. These were devout people, highly scrupulous about keeping every detail of God’s law. The Pharisee is a man from whom we expect a good deal.
But the tax collector – he’s quite a different story. Everyone in Israel would have agreed that tax collectors were the lowest of the low. They were Israelites, but hardly friends of their nation. They had hired themselves out to the hated Roman overlords to gather taxes from their own people. That was bad enough, but they were also notoriously unjust in the way they carried on their work. They had to give a certain amount to the Roman overseers. Everything they took in beyond that amount was theirs to keep. Most of them enriched themselves scandalously at the expense of their countrymen. They were almost universally despised as a result. Think about a criminal in our society who has been convicted of a series of crimes. How do you look on such a person? Well, that’s about how people felt toward tax collectors in Jesus’ day.
Both of these men go up to the temple to pray. We would expect that of the Pharisee. It was a part of his regular worship habit. But the tax collector, what was he doing there? He was like a Mafia figure showing up at a church service. His presence there in the holy place seemed almost blasphemous.
We’re also told what each man said when he prayed. When you look at the Pharisee’s prayer, there is much to commend. He starts by thanking God. That’s always appropriate, isn’t it? He’s grateful to the Lord for making him the person that he is. He gives God the glory. Further, it comes out in his prayer that he fasts twice in the week and gives tithes of everything he earns. These were both disciplines uncommonly strenuous. Some fasting was prescribed in the Jewish law but surely not twice a week. It was required to give tithes on some kinds of income but not on all. This man was going beyond the call. In piety, in self-discipline, in the generous giving of his resources to God’s work, he was simply outstanding.
What about the tax collector? What did he have to say? Not very much. He mumbled something about the fact that he was a sinner. That was evident enough to everyone! He had done nothing, apparently, to commend himself to God. He made no commitments to do better in the future. He simply asked God to be merciful to him. That was all. It was as though he had said, “I know I’ve been a scoundrel, God, but let me off this time. I don’t want to have to suffer for the wrong I’ve done.”
A SECOND LOOK
The real shocker here is what Jesus says about God’s response to these two kinds of praying. He says it was not the Pharisee who was declared in the right before God, who was accepted by heaven. It was the tax collector! Yes, this confessed extortioner went back to his house a forgiven man. God had accepted his prayer.
We aren’t told what the Pharisee received, but we have to conclude that he got nothing from God, no word of divine approval, no verdict of innocence, no acceptance. He went home empty-handed. His prayer, apparently, had gotten nowhere.
Let’s try to understand how this could be. What was wrong in God’s eyes with the Pharisee’s prayer? Apparently, it fell into the category we were talking about earlier. It was the kind of prayer someone would pray who trusted in himself or herself to be righteous. The Pharisee took it for granted that heaven was smiling down on him. He was certain that God was pleased at what he didn’t do: he wasn’t an extortioner, he wasn’t dishonest, he didn’t cheat on his wife. He was light years removed from the detestable crimes of this tax collector.
More, he was confident that his prodigious fasting and his above and beyond tithing were shining examples of positive righteousness. If God would be content with a minimum of self-denial and an occasional tithe, how pleased must He be with the “much more” this man offered?
That very attitude proved to be his undoing. It was precisely because he felt so good about the virtues in his life, so confident that he could pass heaven’s test, that he was rejected.
And it wasn’t self-satisfaction alone that shipwrecked him. The man was full of superior feelings toward others. He saw himself as several cuts above the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, the tax collectors. He thought he occupied the moral high ground. And that attitude too was grievous to God. The Pharisee’s prayer simply affirmed what a fine person he was. He congratulated himself, as it were, in the presence of God. He felt the need of nothing and asked for nothing. And that’s exactly what he got.
The tax collector, on the other hand, obviously felt uncomfortable there in the temple. He probably stayed in the outer court. He didn’t feel “at home” as the Pharisee did. He felt unworthy to be there. He was so ashamed, so guilt-stricken, that he couldn’t even look up toward heaven, toward God. He beat upon his breast as though to acknowledge that he deserved punishment, that his problem was his own wicked heart. He admitted who he was, a sinner, and cast himself on the mercy of God. “God, be merciful to me; God, be favorable toward me. I am a sinner.”
This tax collector is not comparing himself with others, with anyone. He’s not even thinking of anyone else. What weighs on him is a crushing sense of personal responsibility. He feels like the worst offender in the world, maybe the only one. He calls himself “the” sinner. He could have borrowed Paul’s phrase, I suppose, “the chief of sinners.” He offers no excuses; he makes no promises; he just wants mercy. And you know, he gets it. His sins are all forgiven. God pronounces him innocent and acceptable in His sight. Can you imagine that?
Jesus’ final teaching makes the picture complete. Why did this man, this tax collector, go down to his house justified, forgiven, rather than the other, the Pharisee? Because, says Jesus, “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). Remember now, we’re not talking about degrees of moral achievement. We’re not talking about the tally of offenses committed or of good deeds done. We’re talking about a person’s heart attitude toward God. Is God to me someone in my debt because of the evils I’ve avoided or the moral achievements to which I can point? If that’s how I look at God, I’m exalting myself, and I’m about to be humbled. But, if God to me is the holy One against whom I’ve offended, and also the gracious Lord who is good and ready to forgive, then I’m on the right track. I’m humbling myself before Him and so I’m open to receive His free gift of forgiveness and new life.
Now think for a moment with me about the one who told this story, about Jesus Christ. In a way, it expresses the heart of His mission. He said that He hadn’t come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. People who felt no need, who were satisfied with themselves, who looked down on others – they had no use for Jesus. They didn’t think they needed a Savior. But those who knew they were in the wrong, who trusted in Him for pardon, healing and help, they were the ones whose lives were marvelously changed.
You see, friends, if you and I were all right as we are, if on the basis of our performance we could get by and be accepted before God, the Lord of glory would never have had to come here. Surely, He wouldn’t have needed to die for our sins. But such was our guilt, our lostness, our need before God, that only this supreme sacrifice, this self-giving love of God in Christ, could avail to win acceptance for us.
When we recognize that mercy comes from nothing in ourselves but all from God, not from our works but from Christ’s work for us, then we’re accepted. When we humble ourselves to receive with an empty hand His grace, then we go back to our homes justified.
So, friends, let’s give up all our efforts to make ourselves acceptable, all our maneuvering to prove we’re better than someone else. That’s a dead end. Rather, let’s acknowledge that we’re sinners and trust completely in God’s mercy through Christ. Then, as forgiven people who have received now the inbreathed life of God’s Spirit, let’s go on to live a life of godliness and gratitude. But let’s always remember that it’s not what we do that makes us right with God but what He has done for us in His beloved Son, Jesus.