The gospel of Luke Ch. 18 vs. 9-14, English Standard Version*
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.”
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version
copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, © Parva Press
Here, in the early verses of Luke 18, are two parables on prayer.
The first – to hold fast; not to lose heart, to persist in prayer despite injustice and hostility and the long wait for the kingdom of heaven and the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of man.
And the second – how true righteousness is obtained; a pitfall to avoid and a pattern to follow. It is a description, says Matthew Henry, rather than a parable. Two men went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Like the first parable, this one, too, has an introduction. It was told to warn those who naturally assumed that God would be delighted with them and their way of life and who despised ‘lesser men’; held them in contempt.
I hate the proud, conceited, self-centred Pharisee. Going into the temple to pray, he just glances at God and then congratulates himself! He says how brilliant he considers himself to be and then rubs it in by comparison with what he sees as, ‘that defiled and cringing tax collector.’
Yet, in one way, I have great sympathy with the Pharisee. He was doing his best. Like the apostle Paul, before the Lord met him, this man was doing what his parents, his teachers and now his fellow Pharisees had taught him to do. From a very young age he had been taught the language of faith. He had learned how religious people thought and behaved. It was all part of his ‘spiritual formation’ and now here he was a pillar of respectability both in society and among religious leaders. Yet he had never had cause to do as the tax gatherer did; he had never had cause to do ‘heart business’ with God. So his fine religious appearance was very much like the large box of chocolates in a shop window – actually empty; for display purposes only. Hence the quotation of our Lord from the prophet Isaiah, ‘. . . this people honours me with their lips but their heart is far from me.’
Could this happen to us? Well sadly it can, among the many great benefits of growing up in a Christian family and a Christian fellowship is this one great snare, our Christianity can be all on the outside, a kind of veneer that has been applied to us until we have so grown into that it feels comfortable. It is the way we speak and the way we go about things. What is totally absent is any personal, vital, heart-felt experience of God’s amazing love and mercy or any genuine work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. As a result there is no real heartfelt love for our heavenly Father or his Son the Lord Jesus Christ and there is no consuming passion for the coming of kingdom of heaven. Church life is lovely, it is where we meet our friends and sing heartily, but the religious part is a necessary duty, a habit from which, of course, no ‘rivers of living water’ can flow. There are countless church leaders, officials and members in exactly this man’s shoes. Could he be us? What a nasty parable!
From a safe distance, the Pharisee really is horrible, offering a disgusting, public display of his impressive prayerfulness, his earnestness (frequent fasting) and his generous giving (a tenth of everything). I want nothing to do with him, do you? But most of all I hate him because the root of his attitude is here in my own heart. It is default human nature to inflate our own ego at the expense of others . . . and, with the passing of the years, truly godly folk can so easily slip into it; ticking religious boxes and comparing ourselves favourably with others.
The scene is not hard to imagine. ‘I must say it’s good to be here in church tonight. I really feel fine. I brought three elderly folk and plan to put a crisp new note in the collection. Bear no comparison with the masses who crowd these city streets on a Friday and Saturday night; pimps and prostitutes, druggies and drunks’ . . . oops – a pitfall to avoid! Who am I to parade my shallow, imagined piety and sweepingly condemn ordinary folk, in need of mercy, out for a drink with their friends . . . as I did in my youth! The Lord Jesus came to rescue, not to condemn, the world!
Jesus did not tell just tell this parable to warn the Pharisees. It is nasty. It can challenge all of us.
And so to the parable itself.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. ‘Up’, because the temple was on temple mount and certainly you came ‘up’ to Jerusalem if you were coming in from the surrounding countryside. ‘To pray’, that to us immediately signifies private prayer but Jesus did not say, ‘to a private place, or ‘to a solitary place’ but, ‘to the temple’ and to Jesus’ hearers it simply meant, ‘went up to worship’. So they could well have been going to join a congregation in public worship, during which – as hopefully with us – personal business with God could be done if that is truly the heart’s desire.
But see, as Matthew Henry points out, how the evil one is able to bring evil out of good, as in the case of the Pharisee and how God is able to bring good out of evil, as in the case of the tax collector. You see, was it not good that the Pharisee was not an extortioner, unjust or an adulterer? Is it not good to seriously pray and set aside money for the kingdom of heaven? If we do less, is not that very sad? Yet Satan took that which was good and pushed it to an extreme and made that man and his fellow Pharisees proud and arrogant, conceited and self satisfied and so actually caused them to shut themselves out of the kingdom of heaven whose gateway is a humble and contrite heart; humility. To keep out riders on their high horses, the doorway of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is very low. It is like that with the kingdom of heaven. Beware! See how Satan can bring evil out of good.
The other man was very unpromising material indeed; a gatherer of taxes for the hated Roman overlords. Tax collectors, I understand, were not paid. They simply had to gather ‘a little extra’ – as much as the market would bear – from their own fellow countrymen. Some grew very rich, so it is no wonder that as a group they were hated and despised as traitorous swindlers and rogues, exactly as the Pharisee described him. So, as he came to the temple to pray others would shun him and he himself would feel filthy, unclean, unworthy even to be there let alone to pray. Yet this man’s cry from the heart for mercy, for forgiveness, ‘a gasp flung out into eternity’ as Campbell Morgan describes it, this man’s cry was heard by Almighty God. Sometimes God has to bring us very low, until there is no room for self-confidence, self-deception or conceit, before we are willing to cry to him for mercy.
Two men went up to the temple to pray – one returned to his home feeling he had done a good job, even more self-satisfied and conceited and . . . alienated from God. The other went home justified, declared righteous, a new-born, forgiven child of God with a fresh new start.
The world would applaud the Pharisee and look with contempt on the whining, cowering tax collector but the Lord Jesus assures us that it was the tax collector who went home justified. Thank God for this pattern prayer of the tax gatherer; a prayer we can be certain that God hears. ‘God have mercy on me a sinner.’
Putting each part of the parable under the microscope.
Kenneth Bailey points it up even more sharply by inviting us to look closely at each aspect.
First the temple
He reminds us that the temple was very far from just an open space in which to pray. In front of the temple, morning and afternoon a lamb was offered; an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. These two men came up to the temple to worship as the lamb was being offered or as it was burning on the altar in the hours following. The sacrifice was the focus of temple worship and the whole temple area would be pervaded by the sight and sounds and subsequent aroma of the burning sacrifice.
Then the Pharisee
The Pharisee ‘stood by himself and prayed’ or ‘stood and prayed with himself.’ Scholars debate. If he ‘prayed thus with himself’, our Lord Jesus was using incredible satire, for God was quite unnecessary for this man’s self-congratulatory list of his religious achievements and his condemnation of those around him. ‘Prayed thus with himself,’ God was irrelevant! Is it not horrifying to realize how we in churches can manage perfectly well without God. Church leaders expertly crafting our services, our prayers, our sermons but seeming to be, not servants of God, but rather, ’purveyors of religious services.’ Satisfying everyone – congregations flock to hear. Satisfying everyone – except those hungering after the reality of God at work among his people. Satisfying everyone – except God himself. What terrifying words our Lord uttered, ‘What is esteemed among men is an abomination before God.’ Chapel folk, too, can fall into the same trap; such expertise with flowing extemporary prayers and Bible exposition that actually we do not need God. Beware! Cry to the Lord for mercy.
If, on the other hand, the Pharisee ‘stood by himself and prayed’, the foregoing is still terrifyingly possible, but what was going on was this. The Pharisee determined to stay ritually pure and clean did not want his clothes even to brush against those of the other people gathered for worship. He would be defiled and so he stood apart and prayed. He stood and prayed out loud as was their custom and that mainly for the ears of the hearers. He seems to be imagining that he is preaching to the less fortunate people around him and offering them a glimpse to how a truly righteous person lives. In effect, ’look to me and learn from my example’ and he does so with particular reference to the ‘disgusting’ tax collector cowering at the back. The Pharisee has his eye on him right through because by stereotyping him and crushing him he makes his own imagined righteousness gleam even brighter. What a horrible man! And see, without any apparent evidence, except from his own soiled mind he throws in ‘adultery,’ just as the elder brother threw in ‘harlots’ when accusing the forgiven prodigal son, his brother, of wasting the family fortune. Soiling others from our own soiled imagination, of course we have never done that! . . . or have we? Oh!
Poor man! This man’s outward religious zeal and enthusiasm had hidden from him his heart’s condition before Almighty God – as it can so easily for us. Here is the challenge to examine our own heart before God.
Then the tax collector
The tax gatherer knew before God that he could come no nearer. He could see all too plainly his plight before Almighty God. He was not worthy to be among even the least clean of these people, let alone closer to God himself. So he stood afar off and, beating his chest, he just blurted out those few stumbling words from his heart, ‘God have mercy on me the sinner.’ ‘The chief of sinners,’ as the apostle Paul would later echo. All the commentators point out that he uses an unusual word for ‘mercy’. Later in the same chapter we have the ordinary word as the blind man cries to Jesus for mercy; for his eyesight restored. But here it is ‘propitiate me’ as if he is crying, ‘O God let this sacrificed lamb, this atoning sacrifice for sins of the people cover my sin, be for me. God have mercy, God forgive.’ Here is the man to follow. Here is the cry of the heart, not, as the other man’s, a display of shallow words from the lips. It was the tax collector, declared the Lord, who went to his house justified; declared forgiven, acquitted, a new man before God.
There is no specific Christology here; no teaching concerning the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, no specific pointing forward to the cross of Calvary and the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and yet it is all about that cross. The sacrificial lamb of the temple pointed forward to that final, full, perfect sacrifice the one and only gateway to the kingdom of heaven. Hence the cry of John the Baptist, ’Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ In the temple, a symbol of that which was to come; an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. On the cross, the fulfilment of that symbol the perfect and final atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, in order that they, and we, might be forgiven, acquitted, justified, made acceptable before Almighty God. There is no other gateway to the kingdom of heaven.
Go to the heart of tax collector’s prayer. ‘God, I am totally unworthy, the sinner, undone and ruined. Let this atoning sacrifice be for me, for my ignorance of you, for my failure before you, for my sin.’ God laid on his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the iniquity of us all and yet it is only those who follow the tax collector and personally and passionately identify with that great final sacrifice who will benefit. Two men went up to the temple to pray; only one man benefited.
Have we trembled in the tax collector’s shoes and cried for mercy? Can we sing, ‘It was for me he hung and suffered there?’ With the apostle Paul, could we write, ‘. . . the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’?
Here in the teaching of the Lord Jesus are the roots of Paul the apostle’s great teaching of justification by faith; trusting not, as Paul once did, in our own religious achievement or righteous veneer – no matter how magnificent – but trusting wholly and alone in God’s wonderful and merciful provision.
The Pharisee benefited not one whit, and sadly, neither do thousands of good church and chapel folk. He was trying by his own effort and merit and self-discipline to be good enough for God and thought that, in comparison with the tax collector, he was doing rather well. It was not that he was not quite good enough. It was that he was on the wrong track altogether. Those who attempt to exalt themselves before God will be humbled. Those who humble themselves before God will be, by God himself, exalted; lifted up; ransomed, healed restored, forgiven – go home rejoicing with the angels of God, justified, acquitted; a forgiven child of God.
And he told this parable to those who were confident that they had made, and were making, themselves ‘just fine’ before God and despised others. Beware!
O God, have mercy upon us; on our own wilful blindness and unmercifulness towards others. Show us ourselves as we really are before you the Lord, the Almighty and all holy God and give us grace to cry to you for mercy.
‘Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me . . . O Lamb of God, I come.’
‘Honours me with their lips but . . .’ Mark 7:6
‘Rivers of living water.’ John 7:38
‘Esteemed among men.’ Luke 16:15
‘Harlots.’ Luke 15:30
‘Chief of sinners.’ 1 Timothy 1:15
‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ John 1:29
‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.’ Galatians 2:20
- As a listener and onlooker, how would you relate to the Pharisee?
- How would you react to a ‘notorious sinner’ coming to a church meeting?
- Have you been part of a group that would make you think in the way the Pharisee did?
- Why is it so easy to compare ourselves favourably with others?
- Have you ever encountered ‘prayers’ meant for your ears rather than the Lord’s; ‘prayers’ that are really a thinly veiled notice or an appeal for money or sympathy?
- Why is it so easy to hide our heart’s condition before God beneath religious activities?
- What kind of things might help us to discover our real situation before Almighty God?
- What must we do to be forgiven, justified, made a child of God?
- Could you relate to the tax collector’s cry from the heart and subsequent joy?