Christ Covenant Church
Rob Aldridge (Seminary Student and Ministry Candidate)
30 September 2018
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Ordinary Time
Sermon Text — Luke 18:9-14
In 2008, I spent some time in Baghdad, Iraq working as a military consultant. This was years after Saddam Hussein’s government had been toppled and his palaces had been repurposed for use as office space by the US military. I attended a few meetings in these palaces and I was struck by how beautiful they were. The disparity between the beauty of these palaces and the living conditions of the average Iraqi was really shocking. To me, what highlighted this disparity most were several beautiful intricate domes in the ceiling one of the larger palaces. The beauty of the colors and the elaborate patterns contrasted sharply with the shades of dusty brown and scenes of poverty so common throughout Iraq.
One day, I had an opportunity to help a friend install fiberoptic cable in one of the palaces in an area near what I considered the most beautiful dome. I was excited to have an opportunity to view something so beautiful from up close. And I expected to be even more impressed by the artistry of the dome when I got a close look at it.
But, what I ended up seeing, was not what I expected. The dome, which from below had appeared to be the work of a master artist, was in fact something entirely different. From up close, it appeared to be made from some type of thin, cheap plastic. And, from within a crawlspace area above the ceiling, I could see that the dome was not in fact a solid piece of artwork but was instead was held together by a mishmash of rusty metal supports.
Apparently, Saddam had been concerned with external appearances, and he had achieved the goal of making something look fine and beautiful from a distance. But how it looked from the outside was deceiving. From up close, from inside, I was able to see the dome as it really was. You see, sometimes things look really wonderful and beautiful and fine, but externals do not always tell us the whole story.
I mention this because tonight we are going to look at the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As we look at this parable, Jesus is going to give us an up close and personal look at the hearts of two men. We get to see “inside the dome,” so to speak, with the Pharisee and the Tax collector, and we get to see if the external appearances of these two men match their hearts.
There will be three main sections to the sermon tonight. First, I’ll make some comments about the audience and the introduction to the parable. Next, I’ll discuss the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector and their respective outcomes. And finally, we’ll consider how we might examine our own lives and hearts in light of this parable.
Audience and Introduction
Luke introduces this parable by giving a few details about Jesus’ audience. This is important because as Jesus tells this story, He is addressing the spiritual needs of a particular group. Now, Luke doesn’t identify this group by name, but he does tell us that these people were trusting in themselves that they were righteous. And, as a result of their self-righteous pride, they looked down on others. The ESV says that they “treated others with contempt.” They thought they were better than others and their actions showed it. Interestingly, the word Luke uses implies that they actually treated others as if they had no value, as if they had no worth. So, this is Jesus’ audience. People who looked at themselves and their own lives as the standard for righteousness and who showed by their actions that others were essentially worthless.
I mentioned that we don’t know the specific audience, but there are some scholars who think the audience is made up of Pharisees. Now, this might be the case, but I tend to think Jesus’ audience here is more generalized and probably even includes some of His own followers. But, in the end, not knowing the specifics about the audience really doesn’t change anything for us. We may not know who exactly Jesus was addressing, but we do know the exact condition of their hearts, which is really all we need to know.
But, given the information we have, we can make some informed guesses about the people Jesus was talking to. For one, their lives probably looked pretty good from the outside. I’d bet they were very moral people. They did all the right things and they kept from doing all the wrong things. They associated with the right people in the right places and closely followed the Law. From the outside these people looked great. But, inside there was a problem.
John tells us in his Gospel that Jesus, “knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” Whoever these people were, Jesus saw right into their souls. He knew them better than they knew themselves.
He understood the sinfulness and self-deception of the human heart and He addressed the self-deceived hearts of these particular people with a tailor-made parable.
Now, I think sometimes we can hear a parable like this and think to ourselves that Jesus is just condemning the Pharisees again, or that He’s just shaming a bunch of self-righteous people, but I really want you to see the great love of Jesus here. He is showing his audience with a picture painted in words where they are going wrong. He didn’t have to do that. He could have simply left them to the destruction of their own devices. But He didn’t. Remember, these people had been trusting in themselves and they thought they were okay. They actually thought they were righteous on their own. But Jesus had compassion on them and He took the time to show them the truth. He held up a spiritual mirror for them, so they could see the actual state of their souls before God and so they could turn in humble repentance and be saved. So please don’t miss the love of Jesus as He tells this parable.
The two main characters in this parable are a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now, when you and I read about Pharisees in the Gospels, our first thought is that they are going to be the negative example, they’re going to be the bad guy. But, that would not have been the case with the people listening to Jesus. The Pharisees were a very well-liked and respected group with the common Jewish people. For the most part, they were a lay movement, so they weren’t mainly priests. And they were a different group from the Scribes, who were the more official teachers of the Law, although Jesus often addresses them together. But again, for the most part, the Pharisees were highly respected and admired.
Pharisees were very strict about keeping the Mosaic Law and they also put a lot of importance on following oral tradition. In fact, they were so concerned with keeping the Law that they essentially “built a fence” of rules around the Law, “to guard against any possible infringement.” Remember, Judea was a Roman province at this time and the Jews were being ruled by a pagan empire. The basic rationale of the Pharisees was essentially, if people will just do the right thing, God will bless our nation again and things will be the way they should be. Now, this is an oversimplification, but I think it captures the essence of how they thought. And I also think it’s fair to say that the Pharisees were more concerned with a person’s behavior than they were with the condition of a person’s heart before God. So they were concerned mainly with externals. But still, the vast majority of the Jewish people looked up to them as protectors of Judaism. You and I hear Pharisee, and our first thought is “villain.” But the people in Jesus’ audience would have heard Pharisee and thought “hero.”
And this is especially true when we consider the other character in the story – the tax collector. While Pharisees were respected and admired, tax collectors were hated. They were considered “notorious for dishonesty.” Not only did they collect taxes on behalf of the occupying rulers, but they were allowed to collect more than was required and to keep the excess for themselves. So, they worked for the occupiers of Jewish lands and they were thieves. They were actually hated so much, that later Jewish writings suggest that any house a tax collector even stepped inside of should be considered “unclean.”
The contrast between these two men could not have been more extreme. One man is highly respected, the other hated. One man is highly devout, the other a traitor to Judaism. One influential in society, the other an outcast of society. If this were an old cowboy movie, the tax collector would have been dressed head to toe in black. Absolutely no one would have expected, or wanted, a good outcome for him. If there was a villain in the minds of Jesus’ audience, the tax collector was it, not the Pharisee. And Jesus says that both of these men went up into the temple to pray.
Pharisee and Tax Collector Prayers
Jesus talks about the Pharisee and his prayer first and he begins by describing the man’s physical posture. Jesus notes that the Pharisee was standing as he prayed.
Now this might sound a little strange to us, but standing was a normal posture for prayer, so we shouldn’t read too much into it here. But, some of Luke’s wording about the Pharisee’s posture can be a little tricky. The ESV says, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed.” An alternate translation, which might be footnoted in your Bibles, is that the Pharisee was standing and praying to himself. Wherever he was standing in relation to others in the temple, the content of his prayer will make very clear where his focus was.
The Pharisee starts his prayer by addressing God in thanksgiving, but it’s an odd sort of thanksgiving. He thanks God that he is not like other people. And if the start to his prayer, seems like a prideful comment about his own superiority, it’s about to get worse. He next qualifies for God exactly what sorts of people he’s thankful not to be like, identifying different sorts of people by their sins. First, he’s thankful that he’s not like extortioners – the word can also mean robbers or thieves. So, he’s thankful that he’s not like people who violate the 8thcommandment. And he’s thankful that he’s not like adulterers, who violate the 7thcommandment. And he’s also glad that he’s not like the unjust, which refers to people who are generally unrighteous, and lawless, this is kind of a catchall word for wrongdoers. So basically, the Pharisee is thankful that he’s not like sinners. Even in his prayer he is looking down on others.
Now, I want to take a minute and clarify something here. There is nothing wrong with being thankful that the Lord has kept you from sin. Actually, there would be something wrong if you weren’t thankful that the Lord has kept you from sin. So, we should be thankful if we don’t steal, if we don’t commit adultery, if we don’t disregard God’s Law in other ways. Being thankful for this is good. And it is right to thank God for this in our prayers. But that’s not what the Pharisee is doing here. Instead, the Pharisee’s prayer shows pride in what he thinks is his own innate goodness and performance, rather than showing true thankfulness for God’s providence in keeping him from sin. The Pharisee truly thinks he’s better than other people, which becomes very clear as he singles out the tax collector in his prayer, thanking God that his is not like this man in particular.
The Pharisee’s prayer maintains its self-exalting course as he recounts all the ways he continually exceeds God’s requirements. For example, he fasts twice a week. God only required His people to fast once a year – on the Day of Atonement. But the Pharisee does so much better – he doesn’t fast once a year, he fasts 104 times a year! And, he tithes on absolutely everything, everything. Not just on seeds or fruit or herds or flocks – not just on what’s required – but on everything. And not just on what he earns either, but on everything he purchases, just in case it hadn’t been properly tithed on before. The Pharisee is good and he knows it. He’s not like other men. And he’s especially not like that tax collector praying over there by himself. And so, he has no need to repent. He has no need to ask forgiveness. He has kept God’s Law. No, not kept, exceeded. He has built a fence around the Law and hasn’t even come close to breaking a commandment. Or so he thought.
When I look at the Pharisee’s prayer, I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Luke 11 – “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb and neglect justice and the love of God.” Sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it. Paying attention to the letter of the law, even going beyond it, while completely missing its intent. And, all the while failing to love both God and neighbor. The heart of the Pharisee was turned inward. He was focused on himself and his own works. He even seems to have attributed God’s grace to his own goodness. He had a wrong understanding of who he actually was before God. Like Jesus’ audience, the Pharisee was trusting in his own righteousness and despising others.
The Pharisee seems kind of like my dome in Baghdad. Looks great from the outside. Had everybody fooled.
But inside it’s a different story altogether. In Matthew 23, Jesus says the Pharisees are like “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” and that they “outwardly appear righteous to others, but within… are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
When we read later in the parable and find out that the Pharisee wasn’t justified before God, we aren’t surprised. But the scary thing is, the Pharisee was completely oblivious. He trusted in himself that he was righteous. He trusted in works. And when he left the temple, I’m sure he thought he was right before God. As J.C. Ryle notes, “No state of soul can be conceived so dangerous as that of the Pharisee. Never are men’s bodies in such desperate plight, as when mortification and insensibility set in. Never are men’s hearts in such a hopeless condition, as when they are not sensible of their own sins.” The Pharisee was not sensible of his own sin. He trusted in a righteousness of his own. A righteousness that simply did not exist.
Jesus next talks about the tax collector and his prayer. And again, He starts by including some details about the man’s physical posture. Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was standing, but Jesus says that he was standing far away. Presumably, he was standing far away from the Pharisee, and probably far away from everyone else too. As the scene develops in your mind, you can almost sense the shame this man felt as he came to the temple to pray. He was under no pretense that he was liked or wanted by the Pharisee or by anyone else. He was a sinner and he knew it. I expect the man was painfully aware of being looked at with disdain. Because it was typical to pray out loud, maybe, even though he was standing far away, just maybe, he heard the Pharisee’s prayer as he mentioned him in particular. Perhaps such speculation is unwarranted, but we should get the picture that this man was aware of what others thought of him. And so, he stood far away.
But more importantly, the man was painfully aware of his place before God. He understood the separation from God caused by his sin and he was filled with guilt and shame and remorse. Jesus says that the tax collector couldn’t even bring himself to raise his eyes up toward heaven. He was humiliated by his own sinfulness and was unable to even look up as he prayed. The tax collector’s downcast gaze brings to mind Ezra’s prayer after he heard about all the unlawful marriages in Jerusalem.
Not only is the man’s gaze cast down, but he is also beating on his chest as he prays. And while this isn’t apparent in English, this beating on his chest was a repeated action. Here we have a picture of a man distraught over his sin. A man aware that God is holy and that he is not. A man who stands utterly convinced of his own unrighteousness and who realizes his complete inability to save himself. This is not a proud man. This is a broken man. A man who knows that he stands guilty before a holy God and who despairs over his sin. What a contrast to the Pharisee.
So what does this broken, guilty, desperate man pray? Where is his focus? Well, his focus is not outward. He doesn’t look at the Pharisee and ask to be like him. And he doesn’t look around and thank God that at least he’s not as bad as some. Instead, he confesses to God that he is the sinner. This also doesn’t come through clearly in the ESV, but the tax collector is so convinced of his own sinfulness that he actually calls himself the sinner. He is so aware of his own failures before God that no one else’s righteousness, or lack of righteousness, even comes to mind. John Owen, one of my favorite Puritan theologians, says this about the tax collector, “In brief, he declares himself guilty before God, and his mouth is stopped as unto any apology or excuse. And his prayer is a sincere application of his soul unto sovereign grace and mercy, for a deliverance out of the condition wherein he was by reason of the guilt of sin” And so, the tax collector, sensing his own depravity with painful clarity, cries out to God for mercy.
The word translated as “be merciful” actually has some nuance that doesn’t quite come through in English. The Greek word here is associated with the concept of atonement for sins through the shedding of blood. It is related to the word often translated as “mercy seat” or “place of propitiation,” which in the Old Testament refers to the cover on the Ark of the Covenant where blood from the sacrifice would be sprinkled on the Day of Atonement,and which Paul uses in the New Testament in reference to Jesus in Romans 3:25.But, the exact word used here by Luke is found in only one other place in the New Testament – Hebrews 2:17 – where it refers to Jesus, our great High Priest, making “propitiation for the sins of the people.”
So, what the tax collector is asking for is much more profound than mercy in a general sense. What he is really asking is that God be “mercy seated” toward him.That God be propitious toward him. That God atone for his sins and forgive him. The man realized he was unable to do this himself. After all, he was the sinner. And his plea was one of humility and faith that God alone could, and would, provide atonement and forgiveness and justification for the likes of him. And guess what? God was merciful. God did provide atonement and forgiveness and justification. Jesus tells us that this man left the temple justified. The humble, repentant tax collector went home forgiven and righteous in God’s sight, while the proud, self-righteous Pharisee left just as unforgiven and condemned as when he walked in.
Jesus closes the parable by telling his audience that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Pharisee exalted himself before God and men. He relied on himself and his works for a right standing with God, and he remained condemned. The tax collector, on the other hand, humbled himself in repentance before God, asking in faith that God would be merciful, atone for his sins and forgive him. And he was forgiven and granted a right standing before God and left the temple justified.
Such an outcome would have shocked Jesus’ audience. They would have expected the Pharisee to be justified, not the tax collector. I think it’s not a shock to us only because we are so familiar with the story. We take it for granted and we aren’t shocked. But it is still shocking if you really think about it. What kinds of things are exalted in the world today? What kinds of people are looked up to? The powerful, the wealthy, the influential… the list could go on. But God’s kingdom is not like the world. In God’s kingdom, those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Such reversal is a common theme in Luke’s Gospel, and over the past months we’ve talked about it almost every week. We see it in Luke 1, where Mary sings her song of praise to God who, “has shown strength with his arm,” who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” who “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate,” who “has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” We see it in Luke 4, where Jesus explains to the synagogue in Nazareth that He brings good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and that He proclaims Jubilee to God’s people. We see it in the beatitudes of Luke 6, where Jesus tells us that the poor, and hungry, and weeping, and those hated for His sake are the ones who are truly blessed. We see it in the parables of the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Over and over again Luke highlights Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God is not like we would expect. And it’s not just in Luke’s Gospel either. This is a theme repeated over and over and over throughout God’s Word – in both the Old and New Testaments. The self-exalting and proud will be brought low, but the one who humbles himself before God will be exalted.
As we consider how to apply this parable, I want each of you to look honestly at your own hearts. After all, I think some of the people Jesus was addressing here were probably His own followers. And this parable is recorded in God’s Word, so He is addressing us here. I know we all really want to identify with the tax collector’s prayer, but how often do we often fail to see ourselves as the sinner. And we want to reject any thought that we could be like the Pharisee, but how often do we look on our own actions with pride, or start to trust in our works, or judge others against our performance? The truth is that we have to constantly guard against falling into a prideful, self-righteous frame of mind. And when we do, we need to come before God in humble repentance. There is one standard of righteousness, and it is not you and it is not me and God does not grade on a curve. The truth is none of us measure up, which is why we so desperately need Jesus. We have been forgiven much – more than we can possibly imagine – and so we must love much. There is no room for pride in a follower of Jesus Christ. There is no room for boasting about ourselves. If we boast, like Paul says, let our only boast be in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
While there are hard things to think about in this parable, there is also wonderful news here. This whole parable points us to Jesus and the forgiveness available in Him for sinners like us. The mercy which the tax collector so desperately pleads for – and which God so graciously gives him – is available in Jesus Christ. And the very words used in this request for mercy point us back to the Old Testament sacrificial system, which in turn points forward to the true, once for all sacrifice for sin made by Jesus Christ on the cross. The good news is that God can be propitious to us because Jesus became the propitiation for our sins. God can be merciful to us because Jesus became the true mercy seat. He is the true place where atonement for sin was made. And we can be exalted in salvation in God’s kingdom because Jesus Christ, our King, became humble to the point of death, even death on a cross. And after He took the penalty for our sins upon Himself, after He became the ultimate symbol of humility, God raised Him from the dead and highly exalted Him above every name.
This parable is really about the Gospel. No matter how good we think we are, or how hard we try, we all fall short of the glory of God and we can never earn God’s favor through works. Trusting in ourselves and our works will only result in condemnation. But the good news is that if you cry out to God for mercy over your sins, trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ His Son, you will receive forgiveness and be justified. And if this is you brother, if this is you sister, then be assured of your salvation. Be encouraged. Be confident in the promises of God in our Savior Jesus Christ.
But, it you’re here tonight and you feel a bit like the tax collector when he walked into the temple, if you feel like you don’t belong, if you feel like you’re far from God and you feel the guilt and weight of condemnation because of your sins… If this is you, I want you to know that God’s gracious offer of salvation… His offer of justification is open to you. Question 33 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains justification 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, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” Understand that you, like the tax collector in the parable, can leave here tonight justified before God – you can leave pardoned from your sin and righteous in His sight. But only by trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Only by humbling yourself before God and crying out for mercy and taking hold by faith of the mercy offered you in Jesus Christ alone. Trusting in anything other than Jesus can never save. But no one who puts their trust in Jesus Christ will ever be put to shame. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
May we all continually turn, in humble repentance and faith, to Jesus Christ, the One who truly humbled Himself and who God has most highly exalted forever.
Let us Pray.