I don’t usually watch American Idol, but I have watched some episodes. In the early episodes when they are doing the auditions in the different cities, it is particularly embarrassing to watch because there are some people who think they are American Idol material, but they are terrible. I always wonder if they really think they are good but are totally deceived about themselves or if they are acting in an attempt to get on TV. I think, surely people can’t really be that bad and not know it yet somehow I believe there may be at least some who are really deceived about themselves.
If they can be deceived about themselves, then I wonder if I can also be deceived about myself? I don’t mean in the sense that I could be on American Idol, but rather in my goodness. I try to be a good boy, but am I as good as I think I am? What kind of things am I ignorant about? Is God pleased with me? Why is God pleased with me?
Luke 18:9-14 helps us think about these questions. The parable is written in the context of Luke 18:1-8 which speaks about prayer and encourages us to pray. Luke 18:9-14 is about two people who pray, but it isn’t so much about prayer as about their approach to God. The parable Jesus told is about two extremes of perceived righteousness, the Pharisee and the tax collector. One was deceived about himself, but the other was very clear about who he was. How did God view them? The key verse in this passage is verse 14 which gives us the main point, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Let us read the text and think about what it teaches us.
I. The Parable
A. Going Up To the Temple to Pray
For the Jewish people, the temple was the place where they went to pray. When Solomon had originally built the temple his prayer of dedication revealed that it was the place of God’s presence and so it was to be the place where people approached God. 1 Kings 8:29, 30 is Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple and he prays, "May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place."
Even when Daniel was in captivity in Babylon many years later, we read that every day he opened his window towards Jerusalem and prayed towards the temple because God had promised to answer the request of Solomon and answer prayers made towards the temple.
In Matthew 21:13, Jesus also indicated that the temple was to be a place of pray.
So these two men both did a good thing when they went up to the temple to pray.
We read that the Pharisee stood to pray and prayed aloud and this was and still is the common way in which Jewish people pray. When we were in Jerusalem at the Western Wall, we saw the Jewish people doing exactly this. They prayed out loud, standing up facing towards the temple at the point closest to where it used to be.
But who were these men who came to pray?
B. Who Is The Pharisee?
The Pharisee was representative of a person who was super good. We often view them negatively because of their reaction to Jesus, but if we had lived in that day, we might have had a different view of who they were.
There are two aspects about the Pharisees that are important to note. Their name, Pharisee, may come from a word that means “expound” which suggests that they were people who studied the Bible. Bromiley suggests that they were “the most accurate exegetes of the law.” They studied God’s Word and tried to understand it and all that was in it.
Another aspect of who they were is that they were people who separated themselves from the rest. Another interpretation of their name is that it comes from the Hebrew word for someone who is holy or separated. Bromiley says that the Pharisees were “a Jewish sect or party whose members voluntarily took upon themselves a strict regimen of laws pertaining to purity, Sabbath observance, prayer, and tithing.”
They arose in the history of God’s people out of a concern for the nation of Israel. They were concerned for doing right because Israel was an occupied nation and the values of the occupying nation threatened to take over and remove the worship of God from the nation. Their study of the Bible and their desire for holiness was an example for the rest of the nation. Not only that, Marshall says that their concern to fulfill the law correctly was seen to be a way of contributing to the coming of God’s kingdom. They believed that if they were good and if many in the nation were obedient, God would come and deliver them from their oppressors.
C. Who Is The Tax Collector?
The tax collector was representative of a group that was super bad. Often when tax collectors are mentioned in the Bible they are paired with the word “sinners,” which gives us some idea of the attitude people had of them.
There were several reasons why they were viewed as bad. They had their jobs because they had bid for the right to collect taxes for the Romans. This meant that they had a relationship with the Roman occupying forces and not only a relationship, but they worked for them. The Romans and their occupation were hated by the Jews and anyone who accepted it was considered evil.
This relationship with the Romans also meant that their job involved them in regular contact with Gentiles, which made them unclean. Uncleanness meant that they were viewed as sinful.
The method of tax collection was subject to abuse. They would bid for the right to collect taxes by offering to collect a certain amount for the Roman government. Of course the contract would go to the highest bidder. They made their money by collecting more than they bid for. It was commonly and probably accurately believed that they were greedy and dishonest, which once again categorized them as sinful.
So the tax collector and the Pharisee would have been perceived as being on opposite poles of righteousness.
In order to learn something from this parable, we need to think about whom we identify with in the parable. Are we the Pharisee or the Tax Collector? If we were to rewrite the parable for our world today what kind of people would we use? Would we talk about a Mennonite Christian and a drug dealer or a gang member? When I read this parable, I take it to be speaking to me as if I were the Pharisee. I don’t find it hard to hear echoes of the same kind of language as that used by the Pharisee in the circle of Christians. “I thank you that I am not like…” I go to church and…” So as we think about what the parable says, let us not be afraid to be honest about who we identify with and be open to what God wants us to learn?
The key concept which is taught in this parable is humility, but we notice that it has implications in three directions.
In verse 9 we read the direction Jesus intended for those who were listening. He speaks to those “who were confident of their own righteousness.” He also mentions that they “looked down on everybody else.” Verse 14 introduces a third direction which we need to consider when it introduces how we view ourselves and others “before God.” So as we think about the meaning of this parable, I want to think about it regarding our view of ourselves, our view of others and how God views us.
A. Our View of Ourselves
The NIV says that the Pharisee “prayed about himself.” This is a difficult phrase to translate and there are at least three different ways of translating it. If the Pharisee prayed about himself, then it implies that he was not very humble and thought quite highly of himself. Yet there are other was of translating these words. The New American Version translates “was praying this to himself.” This has other implications, perhaps that he was praying silently. The English Standard Version translates it “standing by himself, prayed” which also suggests that he was off in a corner of the temple praying. I am not sure which is the best translation but I lean towards the NIV because as we read the prayer he see that it is clearly a prayer about himself. He is presenting to God all the merits he has accumulated in the kingdom.
As we read this list we have to affirm that he was indeed a very good man. Every one of the things he did were good. It is good not to be a robber or an evil doer or an adulterer. Fasting and tithing are good things. The requirement of the Old Testament was that Jews were required to fast occasionally, but this man fasted twice a week, which was much more than was required. The Jews were required to tithe certain things, but his tithing was also more than was required. When we look at this man, there isn’t anything we can criticize about his behavior. We would love to have such a good man for a neighbor. Our property and our marriage would be safe.
What challenges me about what this man prayed is that I think I have prayed in the same way as he did. I have prayed, “I thank you God that I am not a drunkard. I thank you God that I have never cheated on my taxes. I thank you God that I have five merits on my driver’s license.” If we are honest, I think we have to admit that this spiritual pride strikes close to home.
Everything he does looks so good and we wonder why he is criticized? The answer to that question is given at least in part in comparison to the prayer of the tax collector. The tax collector’s view of himself is, “I am a sinner.” The tax collector didn’t even want to lift his eyes to heaven. He was deeply aware of his sinfulness and need. He beat his breast which is a symbol of the anguish he felt because he knew that he was dirty. What was wrong with the Pharisee was that he was self deceived. He was not as good as he thought he was. Yes, there were many ways in which he was very good, but he was not perfect. He was filled with pride because he thought he was as good as one could be, but he was not aware of the gaps in his life. The tax collector was aware of nothing but the gaps.
We who are pretty good need to learn from the failure of the Pharisee to understand himself truly. Although none of us would commit adultery, we somehow ignore the gap of lust in our hearts. Although none of us would murder, we somehow forget that it is also sinful to hate others. We may go to church every Sunday to heartily praise God, but we somehow forget that we have slandered our brother or sister with gossip. This parable invites us to have an accurate view of ourselves and the accurate view is that of the tax collector. We are sinners and all our righteousness is as filthy rags, as we read in Isaiah 64:6. Because of the gaps we all fall short of the glory of God and are unacceptable to God.
B. Our View of Others
This spiritual pride also involved another problem and that is that he “looked down on everybody else.” Once again, it seems to me that this parable is applicable to a lot of Christian people. I have to confess that I do this. We look down on people who have addictions of various kinds. We look down on people who make poor choices and mess up their lives. There are two problems with this kind of an attitude.
First of all, it is an inaccurate way of thinking. The Pharisee looked at all his good deeds and knew that the tax collector could not compare to him in any way and said so. But there is one problem with that way of thinking. I have helped coach hockey when our kids were young and it was always fun to play against the kids. I was so much better than they were and I could take the puck from them and skate circles around them. One day I played against an NHL player and suddenly realized how poor I really was. This was the problem with the Pharisee when he looked down on everybody else. When we compare ourselves with others and look down on them because we think we are better than they are we are comparing ourselves with others like us. Yes, we may be much better than they are, but the problem is that it is a false comparison. The one we need to compare ourselves to is God and when we do that then the difference between us and the worst of sinners is not really all that great. If he had done an accurate comparison, he would have realized that he had no grounds for looking down on others.
The other problem with this attitude is that it is judgmental. When we look down on others, we pass judgment on them and the Bible says that we should not judge another person. The offense of judgment is that it comes across as superiority. Being “holier than thou” does not draw people nor win them to Jesus. Jesus, who was perfect did not judge people and we need to follow His example. Because we are not perfect if we posture as if we are and judge others, the impression we leave does great damage to the cause of Christ.
The question this leaves us with is, “What do we do when we see another believer sinning?” If we are self righteous we may be tempted to think, “I would never do something like that.” So what should our attitude to one another be? It should be an attitude of grace to others recognizing that they and we all struggle with sin. It should be an attitude of wanting to help one another in our struggle to overcome sin, not with an attitude of superiority, but with a gentle, humble and fearful approach. We should engage them in a loving conversation by which we try to help them see that the course of their life is leading to destruction. This must also be accompanied by a willingness to accept correction from others. Openness to one another and willingness to admit our sin would be much easier if we did not have a spirit of self righteousness and pride, but rather the humility exemplified by the tax collector.
C. God’s View of Us
So the only accurate way to understand ourselves is by how God looks at us.
In verse 14 that perspective is explained. It says that the tax collector “went home justified.” For many of us that is hard to swallow. Why should the drug dealer or the child molester who repents be justified? Is there no reward for all the good things we have done? We think that God should like us because we do good things. We think that God should help us because we have done so much for Him. We think that God should favor us because of all our goodness. But self righteousness doesn’t cut it with God. What God looks for is people who are humble enough to know who they are in His presence. Who we are in His presence is sinners who have nothing to offer and people who are utterly dependent on His grace. The Pharisee came with his righteousness and didn’t believe that he needed God’s grace. The tax collector was justified because he came with nothing and depended on nothing but the grace of God.
The other thing we learn is that “everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” How does that work? The tax collector discovered that he was a recipient of the grace of God. If we lift ourselves up we come to God with something to offer and we expect to be accepted for what we offer. If we come to God with an accurate understanding of who we are, we expect nothing, but find that God accepts us and the foundation of our acceptance then is His grace. If we exalt ourselves by coming to God with our righteousness, we are always under the impression that if we fail in some way, God will then disown us and we will have to earn back His favor by more good deeds. That is the way in which those who exalt themselves are humbled. However, if we come to God with nothing and depend solely on His grace, then we know that we are always welcome in His presence. We know that we are forgiven dirty rotten scoundrels. Of course that does not mean that we are free to continue in sin. Paul addresses that in Romans 6. But we need to understand grace to the point that such a question makes sense. Recognizing that we are accepted by His grace strengthens the confidence we have that God loves and accepts us and in that way those who humble themselves are lifted up.
This isn’t a hard parable to understand. There are different approaches that parents have in giving allowance to their children. Some parents set up a list of work that the child needs to do around the home and the allowance is given as wages for the work done. Other parents simply give their children an allowance so that they will be blessed with having something of their own. The glory of God is that he has chosen not to give us wages for good deeds, but mercy because we are His children.
I think we get that. What is hard is remembering that we cannot earn merit with God by our good deeds, but rather by our humble recognition that we are sinners. What is hard is remembering that we are saved by grace. What is hard is letting go of the pride of self righteousness.
And yet, such humility is not that complicated. Humility is simply having a right view of ourselves. How do we get such a right view? In order to have a right view of ourselves we must begin with God. If we have a right view of the holiness of God and the grace of God, then we will understand who we are and we will gladly and readily humble ourselves before Him and receive His grace.