One of the greatest parables ever told was the story of the Pharisee and the Tax collector. The story is great because it has plot twists and leads to a surprise ending. In Jesus’ day this simple story surely sent people home baffled and buzzing. The message of this simple parable is one of the most pivotal teachings we can have.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody 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 up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”” (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)
Scripture tells us what the purpose of the parable was before the parable even begins, “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” Before we can understand this purpose however we need to define some important theological terms. What do these terms “righteousness” and “justified” mean?
The word righteousness means “right-standing”. To be righteous means to be in right-standing with God. God views the righteous person as being good. Righteousness is a requirement to be accepted by God. The other word is the word justified. The word means to be treated as if one were righteous. When one is justified in a court case they are declared to be innocent or not guilty. In the case of this parable, Jesus was speaking to those who thought they were right and good in God’s eyes. And the story ends with the account of a man who was justified or declared righteous by God. Since all of us would rather BE righteous instead of just thinking we were righteous, we would do well to listen to this parable carefully.
There are two players in this parable, the Pharisee and the Publican or Tax collector. We have been trained to boo whenever the Pharisees come on stage. We always assume that they were the “bad guys”. What we forget is that in the day of Jesus people didn’t see the Pharisees as the bad guys. They were the spiritual guys. They were the guys mothers pointed to and said, “If you don’t do your homework, you’ll never grow up to be important like these men.” They were admired, respected, and perhaps a little feared because of their great knowledge. They were men who worked hard to obey God’s law. They were disciplined and consistent in their religious duties. When this Pharisee came into the temple to pray, people listened. And when he talked about how grateful he was to be different from the Tax collector the people understood why he would be grateful . . . who wouldn’t be?
The Tax collector on the other hand, was a different story. Tax collectors were known to overcharge and to pocket as much as they could. The Romans told them how much tax to collect and anything they collected beyond that amount they were able to keep. They made a living off cheating other people. Everyone hated these guys.
To understand the contrast in this story, imagine a well-know and well respected Pastor, author, speaker going to the church to pray. And at the church there was also a drug-dealer praying. This is the kind of contrast Jesus draws.
We are told several things about the Pharisee. First we are told that he stood to pray. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with standing as you pray. But when these detail is placed next to the account of the Tax collector the posture of the prayers helps drive home the point. The one man came to the Lord in humility, the other with confidence.
Again, there is nothing wrong with praying confidently. We are told to come “boldly before the throne of grace”. The key issue is why you are bold in your approach to God. For the Pharisee, he felt he could be bold because “he had earned” this position. He had worked hard to get a hearing with God.
But as we listen to this leader’s prayer we begin to see the problem that Jesus is going to address. The Pharisee says, “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “ Notice that he compares himself to other men. This Pharisee compares himself not to God, or to God’s Word, but he measures himself by those around him. And isn’t it interesting that he measures himself by the worst of those around him.
This Pharisee knew that compared to other people he was exceptional. He had it together. He was more godly than this Tax collector. Unfortunately he was not defining what is godly by using God’s definition, he was using the world’s definition.
Notice also that he measures himself by his deeds. This Pharisee proceeds to tell God of all the things he has done on God’s behalf. He gives his money, he denies himself. This man was a religious stud. He was the kind of guy every church loves to have.
Before you shake your head, realize how often we do the same thing. We look at our lives and compare them to the lives of others we know. When we look at those who are committing crimes, cheating on their spouses, drinking away their paychecks and acting with violence to those around them . . . .we don’t seem so bad. Like the Pharisee, we too believe that compared to those around us . . . surely we must be going to Heaven.
Ask yourself honestly, “Why do I think I will be in Heaven?” The average person is going to begin listing the things they DO. They attend church, try to live by the Golden Rule, try to obey the Ten Commandments, try to live a moral life and so forth. When we do this we are just like the Pharisee.
What do you think would happen in a school where teachers allowed students to give their own grades? Do you think any of those children would fail? Do you think these children would work up to their potential when they knew they could get an “A” and do nothing? We’d like to think that the thirst for learning would take over. It might in some, but in most people they would be pleased to grade themselves well for making any effort at all. It would be a silly way to teach. It is even sillier to measure our spiritual life that way. God is the one who gives the grade and to “pass” we must be without sin.
Contrast the other prayer. This Tax collector also came to the temple (perhaps a place he hadn’t visited very often). He can’t even look up and has nothing with which to commend himself before the Lord. He just says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The first question I want to ask is: “What brings this man to the temple in the first place?” What brought him to this point of repentance and brokenness? We can only speculate. I would guess that it was because of some crisis. Perhaps he was sick and newly aware of his vulnerability. Maybe he had hurt someone he loved and his heart had been broken. Maybe he became aware of the emptiness of his own life. We don’t know what happened but something happened to bring him to the temple.
This man came into God’s presence very aware of His sinfulness. Actually the passage literally reads, “God be merciful to me . . . THE sinner.: He is not comparing himself to anyone but the Lord. He is not looking at others. He sees only his own heart and the way it has drifted from the Lord. There is no hint that this man thinks there is any righteousness in him.
This man is not pleading his goodness. He is not arguing that he deserves better. He knows that his only hope is God’s mercy. So he comes in and throws himself on the mercy of the court. But there is still more in this prayer. Dr. Boice points out,
It is not merely a plea for mercy—though it sounds like that in the English translation. It is a plea for mercy on the basis of what God has done.
The word translated “have mercy on” is the verb form of the word for the “Mercy Seat” on the Ark of the Covenant in the Jewish Temple. Therefore, it could literally (but awkwardly) be translated “be –Mercy-Seated toward” or “treat me as one who comes on the basis of the blood shed on the Mercy Seat as an offering for sins.” [The Parables of Jesus p. 90]
Of course, he didn’t know about Jesus, but He knew that without someone to Redeem or rescue him, he had no hope. This man could only put all his hope in God. And that is the very reason he was justified and the Pharisee was not. The Pharisee left the temple barely wrinkled and the Tax collector left re-born!
LESSONS FROM THE PARABLE
Because I believe this simple story is so important let me state it again in the form of some simple principles.
Salvation is a gift and not something we earn (by Grace not works). How does a person get to Heaven? Is it by doing good things or by receiving and undeserved gift? Most people would say it is a little of both. But I would DIS-agree.
We are made right with God because of what Jesus did for us. His blood was shed for our sin. His sacrifice paid the debt of our sin. We become right with God when we receive this offer of salvation, forgiveness, and a new beginning that is provided by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is ALL of grace and received by faith.
Don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that you just say a prayer to receive Christ and then you can live however you want. That’s not right either. We are to receive Jesus as our Savior and as the Lord. The genuine believer receives Christ and then follows Christ. We are saved by God’s grace and saved FOR a new life in Christ both here and in Heaven.
Should we try to be more diligent like the Pharisee? Of course we should. Should we try to be nice and kind and as committed as the Mormon? Yes, we should. Should we allow our faith to impact every part of our life as the Muslim does? You bet we should. But we do not do these things in hopes of earning salvation (like these people) we should live this way out of gratitude for salvation.
Am I splitting hairs? Not this time. This is an important distinction and here’s why,
The person who trusts their good works for salvation is really trusting themselves and not Jesus.
The person who trusts in their works can never have any assurance of salvation. (They are always concerned they might have a bad day.) The person who trusts their good deeds can never be sure that they have been “good enough”. How many and what kinds of good works are necessary for a “passing grade”?
The person who is trusting their works will always feel that they must diminish the works of others so as not to let others get “ahead”. They feel that every person who seems “better” than we are makes the “cut-off” for Heaven more difficult to reach. Gaining salvation is a contest . . . it’s like trying to get a good grace in class. In order to get the grade you have to “beat” the other students.
The person who trusts God’s grace doesn’t have to look over his or her shoulder but can focus on what is ahead. He or she knows that salvation is not based on their goodness, but God’s.
The person who trust’s God’s grace is able to celebrate with the victories of others since our salvation is not a contest but a gift.
The person who trusts God’s grace can stop “playing the game” and can start being honest and open about their struggles and their need to grow. We are not saved by our righteousness or perfection, but by Christ’s righteousness.
An awareness of our sin and our need is the first step to heaven. The track record of the Tax collector was much worse than the track record of the Pharisee but the Tax collector was much closer to Heaven. He saw his need and the Pharisee didn’t. The Tax collector ran to the Father, the Pharisee felt he was doing OK by himself.
Sometimes the people who grow up in the church have a hard time realizing that they are sinful just like those outside the church. The kind of sin may be different but it is still there. The degree of sin might be less but the barrier between us and God is still there.
It is just like any 12 step program, you must recognize your need before you have any hope of being helped. The alcoholic, the drug addict, the abuser, the immoral person, the gambler, and the self-righteous religious person must come to a point of admitting their sin and their lost condition before they will ever trust a Savior. Why would anyone trust a Savior, if they don’t feel there is anything to be saved FROM?
We must measure ourselves not by, Public opinion, by comparing ourselves to those around us, or by how well we adhere to some standard of good works. Instead, we are to measure ourselves by God’s standards. God looks at the heart. He looks at whether or not we honor him with everything we do. God’s standard is absolute perfection. There is no graded curve and there is extra credit. When we feel pretty good about our spiritual ability, we must ask, “Compared to what?” Are we comparing ourselves to others or are we comparing ourselves to God.
God looks at our attitude. He looks at whom we were trying to please (and it is almost always ourselves . . . even when we do something nice for another we often anticipate a pay-off of some kind (a deeper friendship, the approval and respect of another, a reputation as a “good person”). God sees not only the times when we are trying to honor Him . . . He also looks at the times we don’t give him a single thought. He looks at the times when we knew what was right to do and ignored that knowledge. He sees the subtle manipulation, he sees the games we play, and he sees those times when our goodness and kindness is serving only as a camouflage for our wicked heart.
The first step to Heaven is the realization that we cannot and will not earn Heaven by our own goodness.
God does not look at a person’s record. He looks at their heart. What a refreshing lesson this is! God doesn’t dismiss us because we have made mistakes (some of them whoppers) in the past. He doesn’t “write us off” because of the people we have hurt (sometimes greatly). He doesn’t write off the Tax collector, the drug-dealer, or the abuser. He didn’t give up on that Pharisee. And even though you find it hard to believe . . . He hasn’t written you off either.
What God is waiting for is for you and me to stop fighting Him and instead to truly turn to Him and trust Him with our lives. He is waiting for us to stop hiding our sin and confess it. He is waiting until we drop the bravado, the spiritual talk, and self-righteous attitudes and instead come and sincerely seek His mercy. He is waiting for us to stop talking about Jesus and to trust Him as our redeemer and our King for life. And when we do that, God will justify us, just like he did the Tax collector.
I wish Paul Harvey could tell us “the rest of the story. . . “ about these two men. What kind of change took place in the Tax collector’s life? Did he get a new job? Did he pay back those he had cheated? Was he a better husband? Did he begin coming to the temple regularly? Over time, did the people see that his commitment was sincere? I wish I knew.
And what happened to the Pharisee? Did he continue to live life full of himself? Did he continue to strut around with a reputation as a spiritual giant while all the time being spiritually dead inside? Was he successful at convincing himself that he was “good enough”? Did he lay awake nights wondering what would happen when he died? Did he live in fear that others would find out what he was really like deep down in the secrets of his heart?
We don’t’ know the end of the story. And I guess it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is the rest of your story. And that is still ahead of you. Which way will you go? Will you go the way of the Pharisee and trust your own goodness, or will you come with repentance and seek to receive and live in the mercy that can be ours in Christ? Will you rest in your ability or in His promise? Will you settle for religious behaviors, or will you seek new life? Will you leave this place “slightly wrinkled”, or will you leave here justified and re-born? You see, this may be a simple story, but it addresses the most crucial questions of you life. Listen carefully; your life depends on it.