Often, as a pastor, I receive prayer requests from people who say something like “I know you have a direct line to the big guy upstairs.”
Is that true?
Are there some people who have greater access to God than others? Does God give weight or more priority to the prayers of some people more than others?
And if that’s true . . .
How do you become the kind of person who has confidence that God will hear their prayers?
We can break our passage into 5 small sections.
Verse 9 introduces the parable by telling us that there is a specific audience Jesus has in mind for the story he is about to tell. Who is he thinking about?
Some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.
To be righteous simply means to be right. Some people believe they are right and they are confident that rightness has come from within themselves. They trust in themselves that they are righteous. We can call them self-righteous.
Self-righteousness is a feeling or display of moral superiority derived from a sense that one’s beliefs, actions, or affiliations are of greater virtue than those of the average person.
Luke tells us more about those who are self-righteous – not only do they think highly of themselves, but they treat others with contempt.
When you believe that you are right, due to your own efforts, it is very easy to look down on others who haven’t produced the same effort.
Self-righteousness will always produce an effect on our relationships. When we generate our own righteousness we will view others with contempt.
Whenever you see someone who treats others with contempt, you see someone who is self-righteous.
The audience is the self-righteous who treat others with contempt.
What does Jesus have to say to those people?
It’s always those people, isn’t it? We sit in the pew and we think, I hope Bob is listening to this sermon. Or we sit in the pews thinking, say that louder for those people out there to hear.
What does Jesus say to those out there?
In verse 10 he introduces the scene and fills it with two characters.
The scene is the temple. Two men went up to the temple. People went up to the temple to pray in Jesus’ time because the temple was built on a a hill, it was called the temple mount. It was the central point and the high point in Jerusalem.
The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, but to this day, people come from all over the world to pray in Jerusalem near the site of the old temple.
In the official temple mount area, you will not find Jewish people praying, because it is illegal for them. If you’re there you might from time to time see a guard shooing off a Jewish person whose is standing in place swaying or silently mouthing a prayer. In order to prevent violence, Jewish people are restricted to what is called the Western Wall, or the Wailing wall. You’ve probably seen pictures of a president or pope or some celebrity praying at the wall.
People pray everywhere, but we are drawn to places with an aura of the sacred. As humans we naturally are drawn to the spirituality of certain places. Maybe you have stepped into a cathedral or a large catholic church to sit and pray. People of faith in Jesus day’ could pray anywhere, but some times you have a special burden to pray and you seek out a special place.
That’s the scene, we are at the temple mount, two people come with prayers to unburden from their hearts at the most sacred place in the world.
The characters are a Pharisee and a tax collector. If you’ve been around church or you are familiar with the gospels, both of those titles probably mean something to you. They are common characters in the world that orbited around Jesus. Whether they are totally new to you or you have heard these words your whole life, there’s a good chance you’ll miss the meaning of this parable without some background.
The Pharisees in Jesus day were among the most respected members of society. Biblical scholar Klyne Snodgrass describes them like this:
“Pharisees were highly respected among most Jews and would have been considered righteous, scrupulous in their efforts to obey God. Their directions for worship, prayer, and righteous living had heavy influence on Jewish religious culture.”
In our time the most trusted and respected people are medical professionals – doctors and nurses always top the list when we ask Americans who they trust and respect most. They are successful, they are experts and we tend to take our cues from them.
That’s the Pharisees. They are at the top of the most respected and trusted polls in first century Israel. They are the ones you would expect to see praying at the temple.
The tax collectors were a little different . . . Here is Klyne Snodgrass again –
“If Pharisees were respected, attitudes toward tax collectors were close to the opposite end of the spectrum.
Tax collectors bid for and purchased the right to collect taxes for a specific region, and various kinds of taxes were levied: poll taxes, land taxes, toll charges on travel and the transportation of goods from one region to another, sales taxes, and inheritance taxes. What tax collectors and toll collectors raised beyond their contracts was sheer profit. . . in Judea, Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors because they had contracted with the ruling powers to collect taxes and tolls . . . Attitudes toward tax collectors and especially toll collectors were quite negative. Such people were notorious for dishonesty and in the Mishnah (oral traditions) are classified with murderers and robbers, people to whom one does not have to tell the truth. They were deprived of civic rights and were not allowed to be judges or witnesses in courts.”
Tax collectors weren’t even trying to pretend to care about righteousness.
It’s difficult to find a modern equivalent. You might think of the strip club owner who builds his new operation a couple of blocks down from the elementary school and the whole town is saying “that guys is the worst!”
Not only was the profession immoral, they were traitors to their own people.
So we have the highly respected religious leader and the despised tax man. What do you think will happen next?
Let’s move in close and listen in on these prayers.
First in verse 11 and 12 we have the Pharisee.
Jesus tells us this Pharisee is standing by himself. The connotation is that he is distancing himself from others in order to maintain his spiritual purity. As he stands conspicuously apart from everyone else he prays like this: “God, I thank you that I am no like other men. . .
First he thanks God for his superiority to others classes of people: extortioners, unjust, adulterers or this tax collector here.
Then he reviews his good works – fasting twice a week and giving a tithe on everything he owns.
Snodgrass notes that “The Pharisee in the parable goes beyond all requirements of the Law. Fasting was required of Jews only on the Day of Atonement . . . In tithing all he acquired, he tithed items he purchased that other people should have already tithed.”
His prayer sounds a little bit like the one offered at Thanksgiving by Jimmy Stewart’s character Charlie in the movie Shenandoah:
“Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, amen.”
This Pharisee seems to fit the description in verse 9. He is the image in the mirror for the self-righteous who treat others with contempt.
Let’s move over to the tax collector.
Just like with the Pharisee, Jesus gives us a description of the posture and the content of the man’s prayers. But while posture of the Pharisee is given little attention, the tax collector’s has more detail. And while the content of the Pharisee’s prayer was longer, the tax collector’s is very short.
The tax collector too is by himself, but the description is different.
He is standing far off. You get the feel with the Pharisee that he is the center of the universe and he is keeping others away from himself to preserve his place as the center. But the tax collector is different. He is not the center and he is purposefully distancing himself from the center. He is standing far off.
While he stands his head is bent down, “he would not even lift up his eyes”, his head his down and he beats his chest. The Greek implies a continuous action. He is beating his chest.
This is a man with some deep emotion, some real heart in his prayer.
What does he say to God?
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
It’s a very different prayer, isn’t it?
Let’s compare them for a moment. Over there is a man held up as an example of righteousness, he is well respected, people come to him with prayer requests as someone who surely has a direct line to God. He comes to God feeling confident because he is not like other people and he has filled his record book with good deeds. He’s been reading his Bible, he’s been fasting, he’s handling his finances well and going above and beyond in his tithing.
The Pharisee comes to God believing he has earned an audience, purchased by all of the good works he has laid on the table. For many people, this is as it should be, this is the essence of religion.
Over here we have the tax collector, the man who greedily collaborated with the enemy of God’s people, the uncircumcised, defiled Romans. The man whose soul is tainted with the greed and lust of oppression.
He has nothing to offer. Not a good work to commend himself. His hands are open and empty. He knows he does not deserve an audience. He is entirely dependent upon God’s mercy.
So which one does God hear?
Verse 14. This man, the latter, the tax collector went down to his house justified.
The word justified is an important word. It is a legal term which means “shown to be right” or “acquitted”.
The tax collector with nothing to offer but his sin is justified.
The Pharisee with his pile of good works is not justified.
Both would have been shocking to the 1st century Jewish listener.
The tax collector began the day as an unclean sinner, permanently stained by his guilt. He ended the day “shown to be right” or “acquitted” by God. He was innocent in God’s sight.
How does this happen?
The parable ends with the law which is repeated through the Scriptures, in the Old Testament and the new:
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
The Pharisee is confident his performance has exalted him and earned him a hearing with God.
The tax collector is humbled, but hopeful that God’s mercy will grant him a hearing he could never earn.
What does this mean for us today?
You might think, sure that’s interesting for the religious person in the 1st century, but what does this have to do with life in secular America in the 21st century?
You may not be seeing anyone you know walking up to the wailing wall to pray as an expression of self-righteousness.
But how often have you seen in the last week someone on social media offering a publicly display of good works, or perhaps calling out someone else’s sin with a tone of contempt?
How often do we display our environmentally conscious consumption. Our racially conscious renunciation of privilege? We wear as a badge of honor our enlightened and sensitive use of gender pronouns?
We have our own ways of trusting in ourselves for righteousness in the 21st century don’t we?
The recently coined phrase Virtue Signaling is defined as the ‘conspicuous communication of moral values or good deeds.’ In 2019 it’s everywhere.
It’s a virus which evolves into countless forms.
Even in the criticism of virtue signaling, we can be infected by self-righteousness: “thank God I am not like those virtue signaling Pharisees.”
We could teach the 1st century Pharisees a lesson or two about self-righteousness.
Why is that?
What if the need to justify ourselves is the symptom of a real, spiritual problem? What if we are not right, what if we are all wrong and we all are carrying with us a terrible spiritual condition which can never be solved with our virtue signaling, our superficial piles of good works?
Writer Gene Edward Veith has an interesting take on this phenomenon:
“the concept of “justification” is not an arcane theological concept. Rather, it’s something we are preoccupied with all the time. We are always engaged in trying to justify ourselves.
Underlying the need to be justified . . . is our yearning for approval, for affirmation, for thinking that our existence matters in some positive way, for our need to think that our life is worthwhile.”
He goes on to say
“It is surely telling that in a culture that supposedly cares nothing for morality–that is relativistic, that rejects absolutes, that is amoral or flagrantly immoral–is actually full of moral indignation, righteous criticism, and virtue signaling. It points to our primal need to be justified. And our inability to justify ourselves.”
The philosopher Soren Kiergegaard in a sermon on this parable noted that, around others, we can find ways to satisfy our need to be right by comparison. But when we are alone, when we have a sense of God in our solitude, our confidence quickly fades and is replaced by a sense of terror. Alone with God we realize how far from him we really are, we realize how wretched our virtue signaling is in light of God’s holiness and we sense that we are in danger before God.
What if all of our virtue signaling is just a mutated form of the religious self-righteousness of the 1st century and is ultimately an expression of our innate sense that there is a God and that we are not okay before him?
This parable is meant to sting. It is meant to pierce our pride and reveal our own forms of self-righteousness. But it does not leave us wounded. It offers a healing beyond our wildest dreams. We are more self-righteous and sinful than we could imagine, yet God’s mercy is greater than we could ever dare hope.
Jesus came to deal with the problem of our danger before God. By living a truly righteous life and by offering his body as a sacrifice he took on the guilt of our sin and self-righteousness before God. He fulfilled the justice of God’s demands and he made the way for mercy of God’s love.
Like the tax collector in this parable, any one of us can end a day which we began as sinners justified by God. Not because of our own works, but because of the mercy of God.
If you have never done that or are not yet a Christian, this is what it means to become one. With these 7 words you can escape your danger before God and find peace with Him forever: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
How do you know if this has happened in your life?
Here is the test.
This comes from Tim Keller. It’s a long quote, but you will appreciate it as we close:
“Here is the way you can tell whether you are a Christian or just a moral person … a Christian or a religious person. A real Christian is a person who says, “it is an absolute miracle that God’s loves me. “It’s just a miracle that I am a Christian.” This is actually an acid test; let me just lay it on you here at the end. There are two kinds of people that go to church: there’s religious people and real Christians. And the way you can tell the difference is that a Real Christian is somebody who sees everything that comes as a gift. In other words a real Christian sees that you are totally in debt to God, but a religious person is someone who is working hard and making an effort and trying to be good, going to Bible studies and just saying “no” everywhere, and denying themselves a lot of pleasures, and so forth, and a religious person is someone who is trying to put God in their debt. That is the difference. A religious person is someone who is trying to save themselves through their good works. A religious person is somebody who thinks they are putting God in their debt since they have tried so hard. A Christian is somebody who sees themselves as in God’s debt.
Here is the acid test: If you are a Christian you have a spirit of wonder that permeates your life. You are always saying “how miraculous”, “how interplanetary”, “how unreal”. You are always looking at yourself and saying, “me a Christian … incredible, miraculous, unbelievable, a joke!!! ” but a person who is trying to put God in their debt – there is none of that spirit of wonder at all. For example, when you show up to get your paycheck. I am assuming that most of you work hard for your money. When you show up for your paycheck do you say “Ah, BEHOLD!!!, you’ve paid me, you’ve given me money!!! Oh!! Are you real?.” No, you don’t do that, you say “of course you paid me, I worked.” If you ask a religious person who does not understand the grace of God, you say, “Are you a Christian?” They say “Of course I am a Christian, I have always been a Christian. Sure I am a Christian. ” My friends, if you are a Christian there is no “sure” about it and there is no “of courseness” about it, not a bit.
The acid test is your spirit of wonder stays there even when things go bad. You see when things go bad, when problems happen, here you can tell the difference between a moralist and a Christian. A moralist says, “what good is all my religion, what good is going to God, I have tried hard to be a Christian, I am trying hard to be obedient to God, and what good is it? God owes me.” And you see you get mad.
You say, “I have been trying hard and look what’s going on in my love life, look what’s going on in my career”, and you get bitter. Why? because God owes you. But A Christian keeps that spirit of wonder. A Christian may say “my career has not gone too well, my love life has not gone too well, it’s astonishing…
Its amazing that God is as good as He is to me. It’s all grace. It’s all grace. That spirit of wonder. That sense of being a miracle. That everything that comes to you being an absolute mercy. That is an acid test. In fact, in some ways I have made a dichotomy that is unrealistic. Christians, to the degree that you behold the free grace of God, to the degree that you meditate on it and you let it become a holy fire in your heart, to the degree you experience and behold the love of God, to that degree you are going to find that to difficulties you will be able to say “oh well, my Father must have a purpose here because He loves me, and besides that, He does not owe me a good life. He owes me a far worse life than I’ve got.” You can handle anything. And when good things come you will say “Behold! what a miracle” And the very fact you can get up in the morning and say, “I am a Christian. Who would have thought it?” There is a spirit of wonder about you, and if you have lost that you are slipping back into moralism, you are slipping back into thinking “well I guess what it means to be a Christian is just to do.”
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown