How to be right with God – Luke 18:9-14

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The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “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.’
14 “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)

How to be right with God

Some diseases and weaknesses run in families, from heart conditions to baldness. The same can be true of moral and spiritual character.  J C Ryle said, ‘We are all naturally self-righteous.  It is the family disease of all the children of Adam’.  Sin is rooted in pride and the exaltation of self.  God is displaced from his rightful position.  Luke 18:9-14 is a parable Jesus told to some who were confident of their own righteousness (v9).  From the two men described, we learn a vital lesson in today’s devotional, Luke 18:9-14 How to be right with God.

1. Two men

We must try to set aside our familiarity with this parable, especially regarding whom we are to admire.  How would Jesus’ audience hear it?  They would hear it in a very different way from us.  Their expectations of these two men would be almost the opposite of ours (and remember, we know how the parable ends).  To the original hearers, Jesus’ parables were often surprising, even shocking.  This one is no exception.  Consider these two men:

(i) The Pharisee: a pillar of the religious establishment.  The Pharisee movement may have had its origins in those who resisted foreign oppressors and their false religion in the period between the Testaments.  They had a history of courageous defence of religious orthodoxy.  The name ‘Pharisees’ may mean ‘pure ones’ and they were certainly very particular about ritual purity.  In Mark 7:3-4 they are said to wash themselves scrupulously and also the vessels they used.  Their obsession was with keeping the Law of Moses.  Many scribes would be Pharisees, from whom the highest standard of conduct would be expected.

(ii) The tax collector: his name and the job he did were regarded with revulsion by the Jews.  He was employed by the Romans, who farmed out tax collecting to ‘tax farmers’ who in turn employed men like this one.  Their aim was to gather as much tax as the market could stand since people did not really know what they owed.  Any money collected above what the Romans required went into the collector’s pocket.  They were known for greed and dishonesty and were regarded as traitors working for the occupying power, Rome.  From such a man Jesus’ hearers would automatically expect the worst.

2. Two prayers

The hearers’ expectations are immediately challenged when the men begin to pray:

(i) The Pharisee: he stands up (v11) – the usual posture for prayer, but Jesus knew his hypocritical desire for public attention.  In Matthew 6:5 Jesus describes Pharisees as ‘hypocrites’ who love standing to pray in prominent positions ‘to be seen by men’.  Very significant is the statement that he ‘prayed about himself’ (or we might even say ‘to himself’).  Though he addresses God, his thoughts never go beyond himself.  What seems to be a prayer of thanksgiving, beginning ‘God I thank you’, is in truth a ‘prayer’ of self-congratulation.  He is a striking example of the kind of person against whom Jesus told this parable.  He was among those ‘who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else’ (v9).  The Pharisee was confident on two grounds:

First, he is not outwardly wicked.  He compares himself with those whose sins were open and public – ‘robbers, evildoers, adulterers’ (v11).  He deals only with what is outward and visible.  He never touches the issue of his heart which is hard and closed to God.  It is always tempting to compare ourselves with obvious sinners, with whom we think we compare well, forgetting God looks on the heart.  To the Pharisee, the tax collector was the lowest of the low: ‘even like this tax collector’.  He despises him utterly.

Second, he performs acts of exceptional piety, going beyond the Law’s requirements.  Instead of the required annual fasting, he fasts ‘twice a week’ (v12), and he tithes all his income, not just the portion specified in the Law.  In doing more than is required, he believes he is building credit with God.  He believes God is pleased with his spiritual state.  It is dangerously easy to forget or ignore Galatians 2:16 ‘a man is not justified by the works of the law’.  We must never forget we cannot be justified by any amount of religious activity or any number of good works.  These can never pay the debt of our sin or place God under obligation to bless us.

(ii) The tax collector: in total contrast to the Pharisee, he ‘stood at a distance’ (v13).  He did not dare to approach God’s holy presence.  His attention is on a holy God, resulting in a profound sense of sin.  He is like Isaiah, whose response to God’s holy presence was to say, ‘Woe is me!’ (Isaiah 6:5).  The tax collector dares claim nothing.  He ‘would not even look up to heaven’, but beats his breast in sorrow for his sins (v13).  Ashamed of his sin, he is desperate for forgiveness.

His words are crucial.  Literally he cries, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner’ – a heart-cry for salvation.  His own sin stands out so clearly, there is no attempt to console himself with the failings of others.  This is true repentance – claiming no merit, making no excuses.  He casts himself on God’s mercy, without any reservation.  He pleads, (literally) ‘God, be propitiated towards me’.  He recognises that sin requires atonement and a price has to be paid for forgiveness.  There is hope, however.   He is standing at the place of sacrifice in the Temple, where sin offerings were made.  Those sacrifices point to Christ the sin-bearer, whom God ‘made to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The tax collector is in the place where forgiveness is to be found.  If we are to be saved, we must come to the same place.  It is the righteousness of Christ crucified that is needed, not any supposed righteousness of our own.

3. Two results

The real shock comes in v14.  People may have seen nothing wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer, but God’s verdict is the only one that matters.  Jesus’ listeners would be shocked to hear that the tax collector is the one who is ‘justified’.  That means that he was declared righteous in God’s sight, his sins forgiven, a new life granted.  This is possible because at the cross Christ the Substitute paid the price for the sins of his people.  It is the work of God’s sovereign grace, received by faith.  The tax collector is ‘justified’, then and there, and will always remain so.  The Pharisee, far from being right with God, still bears all his sins, without repentance or any sense of need, believing he is righteous.  Jesus drives the lesson home in v14 – we must humble ourselves to seek salvation by God’s grace, truly repenting of sin.  The tax collector found a gracious God who justifies sinners on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice.

David McKay

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