I was talking with someone last week who expressed concern that when people share their testimonies there are people in the congregation who think something like, “Isn’t it nice that God saved that person from such dreadful circumstances. I am so glad that I have never done those things.” I think this is a very real concern because the spirit of Phariseeism is alive and well in the church today. But, of course, it was no different in Jesus’ day. For that reason, I want to consider one of the parables of Jesus that directly addresses this situation in a verse-by-verse manner.
The text: Lk 18:9-14
[The Pharisee and the Tax Collector]
 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:  “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you 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!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
9 – So this parable is not so flattering to the Pharisees. The funny thing is, the Pharisees were probably the ones he was actually telling this parable to. Do you think His approval rating with the Pharisees was on the rise? I think not.
10 – Pharisee – Who were the Pharisees? The Pharisees were a sect within 1st century Judaism whose name was derived from the Hebrew word parash meaning “to separate.” According to Josephus, they were considered the most accurate interpreters of the Law. They were resistant to the liberal currents of their culture, they studied the Law devotedly to determine the duties they owed to God, they believed in the supernatural and held firmly to the belief in one personal God who had revealed Himself through Scripture and was concerned with the welfare of His people and was personally involved with their destiny. They believed in the existence of angels and spirits, they believed firmly in the resurrection of the dead, they believed in predestination as well as free will, they were politically conservative, and they were committed to teaching others their way of life.
The fact is, Jesus had more in common with the Pharisees than with any other 1st century sect of Judaism. Yet, interestingly enough, Jesus’ words to the Pharisees were harsher than his words to any other group or person. He called them hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, blind guides, and children of hell. Because of this, when we read the Gospels we tend to get a picture of the Pharisees as the bad guys. Reality check: the Pharisees were the upstanding conservative Evangelicals of their day. In fact, when we read the NT and we see the word Pharisee, we should insert our own name in the text and continue reading.
Tax collector – Tax collectors were some of the most despised people in Israel. They were Jews who had contracted with the Roman Empire to collect the oppressive tax levied against the citizens of Judea. Many times in the NT, the term “tax collectors” appears alongside the word “sinners” as in “tax collectors and sinners.” They were typically dishonest extortionists who collected more tax than they were entitled to so they could line their pockets at the expense of the people.
So these two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, went up to the temple, which was the central gathering place for God’s people, to pray. In contemporary terms you could say two men, a conservative Evangelical Christian and a heathen sinner, went to church to pray.
11-12 – Now we get an inside look at the prayers of these two men and how they differ from each other. The Pharisee’s prayer is couched as a prayer of thanksgiving: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” But the truth is, this is not a prayer of thanksgiving at all, but a prayer of self-righteousness. He begins by comparing himself to others. Have you ever noticed that no matter how bad you have messed up, you can always look around and find someone who is just a little worse off than you are? The Pharisee lists certain types of sin that are outward and obvious: extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, and then he looks around and sees the most obvious sinner standing next to him, a tax collector.
Have you ever noticed how tempting comparison is? We compare ourselves with others all the time. To put this whole thing in contemporary Evangelical parlance, perhaps we should use the term “spiritual maturity.” This tends to be the badge of honor among church people today. We are tempted to gauge our spiritual maturity by comparing ourselves with those whom we think aren’t quite as spiritually mature as we are. We are also tempted to take responsibility for the spiritual maturity of others. However, we need to understand that bringing someone else to spiritual maturity is not our job, but the Holy Spirit’s. We can spur each other on toward maturity, but your spiritual growth is not my personal responsibility, nor is mine yours. We must never submit to the temptation to sit in judgment of others, because all of us have logs in our eyes when we try to remove the speck from our brother’s eye (Mt 7:1-6).
In the next part of his prayer he begins to list some of the things that he thinks has earned him merit in the eyes of God: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” In contemporary terms we might list similar things but we might also add some others: I teach Sunday school, I go to Sunday worship service and Wednesday Bible study, I sing in the choir, I work in the kitchen, I preach, I go on mission trips, I preach, I evangelize, etc. While we may not actually be so bold as to actually pray these things, we all have probably thought things like this from time to time. But we must be convinced in the depths of our being that, as Isaiah says, we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are but filthy rags (64:6).
13 – Now notice how different the tax collector’s prayer is. First of all, notice his posture; he is completely broken, completely humble, and stands off at a distance, unwilling to even lift his eyes toward heaven. He simply beats his breast (a sign of sorrow, even broken heartedness), admits his sinfulness, and pleads for mercy. (Cf. Psalm 51).
14 – Now, notice who it is that actually gains justification (a declaration of righteousness by God). Is it the man who has seemingly done everything right? No, it is the man who admits that he has done everything wrong. This would have been not only shocking to the Pharisees in the audience, they would have been downright insulted. They thought that they were the righteous ones, but Jesus told them flat out that they were the sinners and the despicable tax collector was in fact righteous because of his humility.
Again, to put this in contemporary Evangelical terms, the Pharisee has exalted himself by putting on his church face. The tax collector on the other hand, has ditched the mask. As St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order put it, the humble man is that man who “not only admits with his tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value” (RB 7.51). We Evangelicals are fond of admitting our unworthiness with our mouths, but I wonder how many of us are quite so convinced of our unworthiness in our hearts.
In Monk Habits for Everyday People, Dennis Okholm wrote, “Only those who are humble enough to realize that God does not love us because something we have cultivated attracts his love, and only those who are humble enough to trust that God still loves them when they know how unlovable they are – only these can discover the love of God that itself determines our worth.” While we may think we know this truth in our heads, we may be surprised to find that we don’t yet believe it in our hearts.
How do you react when others criticize you? Do you respond with anger, defensiveness, and counterattack? Or do you think, “Yea, you’re right, and in fact you don’t know the half of it”? Until very recently, when someone I loved would criticize me my reaction would always be one of instantaneous anger, not because I thought I was perfect and beyond criticism, but because deep down inside I knew I was worthless and criticism of my failures made me feel like I was being despised by the one I love. But Jesus healed me of this in a very profound way, and he can heal you too.
Now, let’s consider a couple more passages:
1Tim 1:15 –”The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Among whom I am the foremost – Since Paul has gone to be with the Lord, I now claim this title for myself. As Okholm put it, “I have more evidence of crime against myself than I have for any other human being. My conscience accuses me directly of so much malice, whereas I know only by hearsay of the evil done by others. To be humble before God is to know that I am blameworthy.” In other words, one who is truly humble never tries to convince others of his humility; his humility is self-evident in his acceptance of sin-guilt.
Lk 7:47 – “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” This is one reason I am grateful that the sin in my life has been so blatantly obvious. This may sound strange but it is true. If it could be done wrong, I have done it and I have done it for all to see. But may I just suggest to you that even if you have seemingly done everything right in the eyes of the church and the world, you still have sin in your life and sin that is less obvious is just as damning as sin that is conspicuous. We must all realize that we are sinners who have been forgiven much. Only then can we truly love much.