Jesus uses two extremes in the Jewish religious culture to teach that God does not show mercy according to the works of the self-righteous but to the repentant heart of the sinner.
Jesus uses two extremes in the Jewish religious culture to teach that God does not show mercy according to the works of the self-righteous but to the repentant heart of the sinner.
Hello, and welcome to Series 10 and Episode 4, ‘The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector’. Luke 18: 9 - 14 is the passage that we are going to look at today. This is quite a well-known and very dramatic story that Jesus tells and we're going to find it very fruitful to study it and reflect on its meaning.
Introduction and Recap
You will probably have noticed in previous episodes how much Luke emphasises the parables of Jesus. Both Luke and Matthew pick out parables as a priority, and Luke gives us a number of parables that Jesus told which are not recorded in any other of the Gospels, and this is one of those examples. It's a wonderful blessing to have these parables available to us through Luke's collection, and his decision to add them in to represent the teaching of Jesus so wonderfully. We are in the later stages of Jesus' ministry at this time, and we're in the journey towards Jerusalem, that I described clearly in other episodes, which culminates in his Triumphal Entry into the city and everything that follows from there. It's interesting that in this parable, Jerusalem is where the story takes place, and the Temple in Jerusalem is a central feature of the story. Parables are very powerful stories with a symbolic meaning, and usually Jesus' parables have one main point, and we interpret them best if we can identify what that point is and focus on that in terms of understanding how it may apply to us. Interestingly enough, our last episode was also a parable, ‘The Parable of the Persistent Widow’, Luke 18: 1 - 8
We appear now, in verse 9, at the beginning of our section, to be in a different time and location; it's not connected directly with the previous parable and the events that brought that about. This particular parable was told at some time during Jesus' ministry and travel towards Jerusalem, but it makes some very profound points about the nature of Jesus' message, his salvation and the Christian Gospel; points that echo all the way through the rest of the pages of the New Testament. It's a marvellous story with which to understand what Jesus really came to bring about in terms of salvation, and forgiveness, and justification.
Let's read the parable, verses 9 - 14.
‘To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘Lord, I thank you that I'm not like other people-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 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.’ 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’Luke 18:9-14, NIV
This parable is easily understood when we work out what the target audience is. Sometimes in Jesus' parables we have an indication of who that target audience is and it's very clear in verse 9
‘To some who were confident of their own righteousness and look down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:’Luke 18:9, NIV
We know exactly who he's aiming it at. I'm going to develop this a little and try and give some context so we can really understand some of the background. We've picked up this theme as we've been travelling through the Gospels, and studying different sections, and meeting different people in the narrative, but this all comes together now in quite a significant way, when we actually work out who this target audience is. I think that I would describe this in two ways.
First of all, is the mindset of self-righteousness. This is the fundamental outlook of the spiritual leadership, or the religious leadership in Israel at the time, and is represented by a number of different groups in slightly different ways. Let's look for a moment at the Pharisees who are so often at the forefront of debate and argument with Jesus. The Pharisees were a particular religious sect or group within Judaism who prided themselves on very precise obedience to the Law of Moses. They encouraged their disciples, and the general population, to be very careful in following all the rules of the Law of Moses, as set out in the Old Testament, which we've discussed in previous episodes. This was still the operating religious law of the land. It was a law given by God, it was a good law and the Pharisees were keen that people should obey that law. But, and there is a big but - they encouraged and supported the addition of many other religious regulations on top of the fairly simple regulations and laws of the Law of Moses.
There's an example of this that we can quote, which is quite interesting. We've looked at this in an earlier episode. When Jesus was debating with the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law on one occasion, as recorded in Mark 7: 3 Mark explains a bit about how the Pharisees lived their lives with the following expression, Mark 7: 3 - 4.
‘The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.’Mark 7:3-4, NIV
This is a description that Mark gives to explain the debate that was just about to take place between Jesus and the Pharisees, which we studied on a separate occasion. It is interesting here in that it described as them following the ‘tradition of the elders’. These are all the other extra rules and regulations, one of which was ceremonial washing. Ceremonial washing is a common religious tradition in many different religions and it was very significant in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Ceremonial washing was not for physical cleanliness; it was for moral or spiritual cleanliness. If they went to the marketplace or if they shook hands with a Gentile, they'd want to wash their hands and they wanted to wash the implements of the kitchen as well, to keep everything ceremonially clean. This is just one example of hundreds of regulations that the Pharisees followed.
Some of the other religious leaders were the priests, many of whom were Sadducees as well. The priests were those who were responsible for organising Temple worship in the Jewish Temple, which we're going to talk about in a little more detail in a moment. They were spending their lives on duty in the Temple, and administering sacrifices, and organising the worshippers who came into the Temple. Their priority was acts of worship that should be followed through rigorously and accurately. While the Pharisees' priority was obeying religious laws in life, the priests and Sadducees had a priority of obeying the laws relating to sacrifice and formal worship, and prayer, and giving gifts to the Temple treasury, and all other related matters.
This is the mindset of self-righteousness and it's associated with, what I would call, the mindset of religious and social pride. With this focus on doing the right thing, in religious terms, pride can easily come, separating yourself from ordinary people, and looking down on people other than yourselves. A very good example of this we found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we studied earlier on, which is also in Luke's Gospel chapter 10. I don't know whether you remember the story clearly, but there was a man who was robbed, beaten, left on the side of the road as if he was dead, and various people passed by. There were three people mentioned in the story in Luke 10. One was a priest, one was a Levite, who was an assistant to a priest, and the third was a Samaritan, who was a foreigner. What do the priest and the Levite do? Luke 10: 31 - 32,
"A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side."Luke 10:31-32, NIV
Here are the religious leaders of Israel avoiding contact with ordinary people, or with suffering, or with the unclean. Not only avoiding contact, but very often they looked down on ordinary people.
We've seen this group on a number of occasions in the Gospels. A good example is when Matthew, the tax collector, is called by Jesus to become one of his followers, as recorded in Matthew 9: 9 - 13. Jesus passes by one day and calls him, ‘Follow me.’ Matthew leaves his tax booth, his store, his office, so to speak, and he follows Jesus. The interesting thing is, he has a party very shortly after that, and invites lots of tax collectors and others in. These tax collectors were socially despised by the religious elite because they were irreligious and selfish, and they made money out of the people by exploiting them financially, by claiming more tax money off them than they need to, giving some to the Roman authorities or their colleagues, and keeping some for themselves, becoming rich. We've heard this story a few times before and we need to reiterate it now, because it's very much part of the story that we're going to see in the parable. But when the disciples of Jesus were having dinner with Matthew, who had tax collectors and sinners in his house, the Pharisees said, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" They couldn't understand why he'd spend his time with such sinful people. They looked down on them. A bit like the Pharisee who invited Jesus to a meal and then a woman came into the building, into the house, and anointed Jesus by wiping his feet. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus said to himself,
"If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of a woman she is - that she is a sinner." (Luke 7, 39).Luke 7:39, NIV
He couldn't believe that Jesus would allow physical touch from a prostitute, in the same way that the Pharisees couldn't believe that Jesus would go to dinner and have a party with tax collectors and sinners. The target audience, those ‘who are confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else,’ is a very great reality in Israel at the time.
The Temple and Prayer
Jesus wants to address their attitudes and so he tells this remarkable story of two people who go up to the Temple to pray. The Temple in Jerusalem was an enormous building, dominating the horizon on the hill in which Jerusalem is set, easily visible from a distance, and being extended at that time, and being developed. It was the heart of Judaism, the place the Jews came to, to worship, the place they came to on pilgrimage, the place they came to for the major religious festivals; Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, Day of Atonement, and other festivals. They'd come in and out of the city, and in and out of the Temple in their thousands, in their tens of thousands during the year, to worship and to bring particular animal sacrifices. So, this was a very important building and the Jews believed theoretically, that the presence of God was there, in a special place, right in the middle in the Holy of Holies. The Jewish Sanhedrin, or the ruling religious court, would often meet in the Temple as well. This is the centre of Judaism; this is the place where God is supposed to be; these are the sacrifices that God has called people to make. The Pharisee goes up to the Temple to pray, as he would often do if he lived in Jerusalem, and many of the Pharisees were resident in the capital city.
But the surprise in the story is that he goes up with a tax collector. The tax collector is the opposite of the Pharisee in the story. He is the perfect example of a non-religious, irreligious person, morally corrupt, selfish, involved in corrupt business, making a lot of money for himself, and about as non-religious as you can get. One of the surprises in this story is why did he go to the Temple at all? We get a clue later on in the story, but you didn't find many tax collectors going up to the Temple. It wasn't a comfortable place for them to go, but it was the place to go to pray. Some people went to make specific sacrifices or fulfil religious duties, but many went up to just to pray privately. The Temple compound had several different areas and open spaces where people could go to read the Scriptures, to listen to rabbis talking, and learning from them, to have religious discussions, or quietly to pray. There was an enormous area - plenty of room to pray.
Difference in Prayers
The Pharisee was there praying and the tax collector was there praying. The Pharisee stood up and prayed in a very confident manner,
‘God, I thank you I'm not like other people; robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have’Luke 18:11-12, NIV
What he's saying here is that his religious duties are being fulfilled to the maximum. I mean, who can argue with someone who fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of their money away? This may not have been strictly true, by the way, but that's his claim and we do know that the Pharisees had very strict religious rules that they had to follow. His attitude was an expectation that God would bless him, that God would reward him for his religious duties, for his righteousness, his morality and his generosity with his finances. That's clearly what the Pharisee expected.
However, the tax collector went up, and, notice, it says he stood at a distance, so he was right at the back in the area. He kept his head down; there was a sense of shame, a sense of a troubled conscience, and he beat his breast as a sign of remorse, sadness, troubled conscience. His words were very short, but very sincere,
"God, have mercy on me, a sinner."Luke 18:13, NIV
Something had happened to that tax collector that had made him go to the Temple that day. I'm describing it as a troubled conscience, a man who was irreligious, who one day realises he's in the wrong; he's doing wrong things; his conscience is troubled; and he needs to get peace with God. He feels he's not at peace with God, that he's probably under the judgement of God and he comes and asks for God's mercy. Jesus has set this story up to provide maximum contrasts, to make his point in terms of who the people are, and what their attitudes are. Who are the people? The most religious person you can imagine - a Pharisee. And the most irreligious person you can imagine? A tax collector. Their attitudes are fundamentally different; the Pharisee self-confident thinks he's done quite enough to earn God's favour, and the tax collector is filled with guilt about the things he's done in his life. We don't know what they are, but they're certainly going to involve financial fraud, theft off people, pure selfishness, and probably a lot of other things as well.
Jesus Shocking Statement
Then comes the shock. This would have been a terrible shock to some of the listeners to this parable in the first instance. Verse 14,
"I tell you that this man(the tax collector) rather than the other, went home justified before God."Luke 18:14, NIV
How astonishing, how counterintuitive. We find that it isn't the religious actions that we do that justify ourselves before God. It's something to do with our inner attitude; something to do with what's going on inside us; it's something to do with repentance; it's something to do with knowing you're wrong; it's something to do with handing over control of your life to God; and it's something to do with deciding you're going to make a fundamental change. We don't know all the details of what this fully meant in this particular individual's situation, but we can see a very interesting point. God brings justification, or a right relationship with him, including forgiveness, to those who are really honest about where they're at, and want to change, and believe they're in the wrong. That's what the tax collector was doing there. But God opposes people who think they can justify themselves before God by being religious, or morally upright, and that that's the way to find his favour. This is a shock.
The implications of this message have always been there in Jesus' ministry. He's shown mercy to people who haven't deserved it. He's challenged the religious establishment. We've seen these things happening on many occasions in previous episodes, but in this parable it all comes together. It's all thrown into a single story. We suddenly see the fundamental realities of the Christian message, which is so different from the religious systems, that many people lived by.
Let's take a step back from the story and try to work out the things we can learn, what reflections we can make? First of all, I want to comment on the final statement of Jesus,
"Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."Luke 18:14, NIV
It turns out that humility, brutal honesty with ourselves and with God, is a step towards salvation. It turns out that the more proud we are of our achievements, morally, religiously, and socially, the more likely we are to be under God's judgement, and out of relationship with him. This was a shock, such a shock. This was the reason fundamentally for the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment in Israel. That's why they turned against him, because they fundamentally believed in their own superiority, and in their own salvation, through obeying religious laws, carrying out religious duties. There's a lot of pride involved in them.
When we take this story out of the context of Israel, and transfer its meaning into our own cultures, we can see some parallels. I'm inviting you to do that now. I don't know where you live in the world, but you will have your own religious systems. You may be in a nominally Christian country, you may be in an Islamic country, maybe in a Hindu society or a Buddhist society, or some other religious system may be dominant in your country. I'm sure you'll recognise the characteristics of this Pharisee within your society, within the religion that you know best. People like to feel that they've done something for God, that they proved themselves to God, that they've lived up to the standard, that they worked hard, and they've achieved some kind of salvation by self-effort. It's just the way human beings are naturally in their religious outlook, and this outlook finds expression in all sorts of religious traditions. It can certainly find itself in some traditions in churches as well. That's a danger for us to think about.
It turns out that in terms of forgiveness, justification, relationship with God, God is looking for some basic ingredients in our hearts, and basic elements in our heart, which I would describe as humility, repentance, and faith. Those are the three things that the tax collector had. He was honest about himself; he knew he'd messed up his life, he knew he was living a selfish life, that's humility. He was repentant, in the sense that he was willing to own up, take responsibility for his actions.
"God have mercy on me a sinner,"Luke 18:13, NIV
He's asking God to help him; he's taking responsibility, and saying, ‘I am the sinner’, and in praying to God he's expressing faith; that there really is a living God who is going to be merciful to those who call on him for mercy. That's an amazing story. I hope it helps you to think through this story in a little more detail.
As we go through the New Testament, we find that the concepts in this parable are developed further, and they become clearer, they come into much clearer focus. The first step in that, is the death and the resurrection of Jesus. You see, in the death of Jesus, in a formal and specific way, he identified with the people who needed mercy for their sins. They couldn't do anything about the things they'd done wrong, like the tax collector in our story. He took our sins; he took our sins in his body on the cross. According to the apostolic teaching, it was a substitutionary action; he stood in for us, and he paid the price of sin for us; he died so that we don't have to die. He was judged, as it were, so that we don't have to be judged, and therefore opened up the way for God to forgive us on the basis of atonement. This is all prefigured in this story but it comes to fulfilment in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
By the time we get to the apostolic writers like Paul, and others, they become very clear as to how this actually works. I want to end this episode by just quoting to you three verses from Paul's writings, Ephesians 2: 8 - 10. This is a lovely summary of what the early Christians discovered as they followed through the insights of this parable and other teachings of Jesus, and as they reflected on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit gave them understanding, they came to be very clear about what the basis of salvation and forgiveness is. Ephesians 2: 8 - 10,
‘For it is by grace (God's grace, that) you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV
Notice here, we're saved by God's grace. He made the way possible for us through the death of Jesus. We need faith, and salvation is not from ourselves, it's God's gift. It's not by works, so that we can't boast. You see the Pharisee boasted. He thought he'd done it himself. He thought he'd earned God's favour and he was terribly wrong.
The tax collector knew he couldn't earn God's favour, but he found God's favour by a combination of humility, repentance and faith. That's the way for you and me. For some of us listening to this episode today, you will know that it's your time now to respond to this amazing message of Jesus Christ. If you're already a believer, it's great now to underline the basis of your faith, and to know for certain, that you're saved by grace, by God's grace, and through faith, rather than by your own efforts.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- The tax collector was not comfortable in the Temple. Where do you feel uncomfortable?
- Are you trying to earn God's favour by doing certain things? How is this different to living a life that is pleasing to God?
- Talk to God honestly about yourself in humility like the tax collector
- How would a modern-day ‘Pharisee’ appear in your setting? Look at their beliefs and behaviour. How would you deal with this type of person?