We saw last week in the account of the rich young ruler that there are many people who feel some need to be religious, to be rich towards God, because they are not like the rich fool in the earlier parable who cares not for God nor man but only for his pleasure on earth, but these people believe in God and in the hereafter, and they think it prudent that they make an investment in heaven so that they will be rewarded after this life is over. This desire for religion then a common aspiration throughout the entire world and I’m sure most of us would agree that it is commendable for men to seek to be right with God. But as this parable illustrates, simply being religious, or even living a life which they believe to be righteous, does not equate with justification in God’s eyes. Justification simply means the act of becoming righteous before God.
This very morning across this country, millions of people are practicing some sort of religion, in the hope that they are making progress with God and thus insuring eternal life. Millions of people are seeking to appease God, or to be justified with God, or to achieve good standing with God, and they are doing so at least in some part by going to church, or to a temple.
And if the truth be known, most people, perhaps even some here this morning, would think that the sincerity and the effort put forth by these people in trying to achieve spiritual standing with God should be counted for something – even if eternity should prove their diligence is misplaced or even if they are misinformed as to the correct way to God. They should be given credit for their effort, for their sincerity in pursuing religion. If God truly be a God of love, and only love, then isn’t He pleased that they seek Him, and how could He possibly reject their attempts to appease Him?
However, Jesus tells a story about the kingdom of heaven which illustrates that not all who practice religion are righteous, that not all who seek justification are in fact justified before God, even though in their minds they think that their religion is sufficient to accomplish a good standing before God. Luke, the writer of this gospel, tells us that Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt. So by his statement, we see that self righteousness is actually not a form of righteousness at all, but is actually a sin of pride, and that pride is evidenced by another sin, which is to hold one’s neighbor in contempt. Pride is not just a sin that hurts oneself, but it also hurts others, that the characteristic of pride. And by that characteristic we see that pride is a terrible, damning sin in the eyes of God.
As we shall see, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector warns against the danger of self-righteousness and exhorts us to approach God with humility, placing our ultimate trust not in our merit but in His mercy and grace. In this parable Jesus is teaching how a man might be justified with God. And to illustrate this doctrine, He gives us a study in contrasts, a tale of two men who come to God, or you might say, a tale of two religions. These are two men who stand in sharp contrast to one another in their approach to God. And perhaps this also serves as a picture of the kingdom of God, in which are both wheat and tares, both seeking after God, but one life bearing the fruit of righteousness and the other life evidenced by self righteousness which produces no spiritual fruit.
These two men are described as a Pharisee and a publican. And initially we see that both are religious. Jesus begins the parable by saying that both the Pharisee and the publican come to the temple to pray. Vs 10, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” On the surface, they both would seem to have the same desire to come to God, presumably to be right with God. They both have an interest in spiritual things. They both have a belief in God. They both believe that going to the temple to pray is a means to come to God. So far, so good. But that is where the similarities end.
Jesus begins this contrast in approaches to God by first focusing on the Pharisee. He says in vs 11, “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.”
The Pharisees were a Jewish religious group that began in the period of time between the writing of the Old Testament and the New Testament, what is called the intertestamental period. They were concerned about the decline in the standard of Jewish religion at that time, about the neglect of the people for the law of God, as the Jews were being corrupted by the culture that they lived in the midst of. This religious group formed to urge the people back to godliness. But eventually, the Pharisees themselves became corrupted by the sin of pride. They became more focused on their obedience to the law, rather than what the law was intended to teach.
The law of God is supposed to reveal God’s standard of holiness, and how far short we fall short of keeping it. As Paul taught in Galatians, the law was intended to be a schoolmaster to cause us to turn to Christ. But rather than seeing their sin revealed in the law, the Pharisees saw their own achievement as something to be proud of. And to compound their error, they sought to condemn others who did not match their zeal in regards to the law, but thought that they were above such people and tried to keep their distance from them. Anything or anyone that they considered beneath their level of achievement they studiously avoided. When I was growing up we used to say about such people that they had their nose up in the air. Self righteousness and pride bring about contempt for others.
Notice Jesus’s description of this man in vs 11. “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself.” Though he addressed God, Jesus indicates his prayer was not heard by anyone other than himself. He was praying for his benefit, and perhaps the benefit of whoever might be watching him. Some versions translate it as the Pharisee was standing by himself and praying. In other words, he picked out a prominent spot, by himself, perhaps on some elevation, where he could easily be witnessed to be in prayer.
Jesus said about the Pharisees in Matt. 6:5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Many have taken that verse as an indication that the Pharisee in this parable was standing in a prominent place to be seen of men. We can learn a lot about the spiritual status of a man by his prayers, or by his approach to prayer. Pride prohibits prayer. Jesus said in Matthew 6, in contrast to the Pharisee,“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
Notice the prayer of the Pharisee tells a lot about this man’s issue with pride. He says nothing about his own sinful condition, there is no spirit of repentance, but rather pride in that he has achieved in his mind at least, a higher standing with God than others, especially this publican nearby. “I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Paul said in 2 Cor. 10:12, “but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.” The law of God is given to compare ourselves with God’s righteous standard, not so that we can compare ourselves with others and think we are doing better than they. God does not grade on a curve, but He grades us on a scale of perfection. “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Unfortunately, the way this man approached God is the way many people use religion. They tend to have a misunderstanding of what is required to be justified before God. They trust in what they think is their inherent goodness, their sincerity, their works, their participation in religious rituals and ceremonies to make them right with God. Notice, that the Pharisee claims his fasting and his tithing are merits that earn him justification with God. Now the Old Testament law did not require fasting, but the Pharisees sought through their tradition to make fasting into a means of righteousness. But their motivation was wrong. They fasted to be seen of men. They fasted more than the law required, so that it would appear to others that they were extremely devout.
But Jesus gave the right attitude towards fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. He said in Matt. 6:16-18 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites [do,] for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees [what is done] in secret will reward you.” I can’t help but see the irony in that verse in light of the way most churches observe lent. Lent is a very public fast, if you can even call it a fast in most cases, with the participants receiving an ash mark on their foreheads which they are supposed to wear to advertise that they are fasting. I saw on the news, though I didn’t want to click on it, that AOC was giving up eating meat for lent, and it had a picture of her with her head bowed like she was praying or something. How did the news know? Did she send out a press release or something? I would like to suggest to her a few things I would like to see her give up for Lent. Beware of doing your works to be seen of men.
The common misconception of most people’s idea of religion is that a person will go to heaven if their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds. I have news for you, none of us could get in by that standard. Not if we evaluated our deeds by God’s standard of what is good. Our sin far outweighs any possible good we might do. Psalm 130:3 says, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” None of us could stand before God on our merits. As Paul said in Romans 3, quoting from the Old Testament, “as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.”
The other claim to goodness on the part of the Pharisee is that he tithes of all that he gets. Now tithing was mandated under the law. And I’m sure that this man was a fastidious tither. Jesus said that the Pharisees tithed of mint, dill and cummin. Those were the herbs that they grew in pots outside their kitchen window. They carefully measured out the herbs to make sure they were tithing on every thing. But they did so to make an impression on people as to their devoutness. They made sure that their giving was public. The big tithers actually had someone blow a trumpet ahead of them as they came to give in order to announce themselves and their generosity.
Jesus said in response to that attitude in Matt. 6:2-4 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees [what is done] in secret will reward you.”
So the very works of the law that the Pharisee claimed as righteousness, in fact he erred in doing them, because he did them to be seen of men, and they actually were a sin of pride in self achievement.
In sharp contrast to this prideful, contemptuous, overtly religious Pharisee, Jesus shows us the publican standing off in a corner of the temple perhaps trying to stay out of view from others. You get the feeling that in contrast to the Pharisee, the publican is trying not to attract attention. The publican was a term used for a tax collector. These men were the most hated of all in Jewish society because they were considered traitors to their country. They collected taxes for Caesar, but not only that, they made their money by adding on a surcharge, which was allowed by the government, but which usually was egregiously high. It was bad enough to work for the Romans, but to get rich from taking advantage of your countrymen was an unforgivable thing in the eyes of the Jews. So it’s no wonder that the Pharisee felt it was right to be contemptuous towards the publican.
The publican had also come to pray to God, but Jesus said he would not even raise his eyes to heaven. He exhibited a heart that had been humbled, that was remorseful, a heart that was repentant. In Psalms 51:17 we read, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The publican came before God with the right attitude.
Jesus said in vs13 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
What’s apparent in the attitude of the publican is that he understood the serious nature of his sin and expressed genuine mourning over it. Beating one’s breast in the Jewish culture of that day was an expression of mourning. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 5, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Jesus was talking about mourning over your sin, mourning over the bankruptcy of your spiritual condition.
This tax collector knew that God was holy and that he was not. He came before God empty handed. As the hymn “Rock of Ages” so aptly puts it, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling. Naked, come to the for dress, helpless look to thee for grace. Foul I to the fountain fly, wash me Savior or I die.” Rather than gloating about his achievements, the publican simply called out to God for mercy.
This word rendered “merciful” in the NASB has another meaning. It’s the word propitiation. The ancient Greek word translated be merciful is hilaskomai; it is actually the word for an atoning sacrifice. The fullest sense of what the tax collector said was, “God, be merciful to me through Your atoning sacrifice for sins, because I am a sinner.” The only other place this word is used in the New Testament is in Hebrews 2:17, where it is translated propitiation. Propitiation refers to the act of atonement by Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners. He was the penal sacrifice for our sins.
The tax collector may not have been recognized for his morality, or his good standing in society, but he has a good grasp of theology. He understood that if he is to be accepted by God, then it will have to be on the basis of God’s mercy and grace. It will have to be on the basis of what God has done, and not on what he has done. Mercy is by propitiation. But grace indicates not something forgiven, but something given. Grace is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account.
The doctrine of imputation teaches that the justification that sinners receive before God is based on a righteousness that is not their own. By faith, sinners receive a righteousness that is not from their own works, but that comes from outside of us. And that righteousness comes from Jesus Christ. In order to reconcile fallen humanity to God, Jesus Christ did not simply arrive on earth and then die upon the cross. But He had to live completely righteous, perfectly sinless life as our representative. That righteousness of Christ is then imputed to those who put their faith in Him.
As 2 Cor. 5:21 says, “[God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might receive the righteousness of God in Him.” The only way to be rich towards God is to first recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt, and receive as a gift of God the righteousness of Christ imputed into our account.
To be considered rich towards God is the principle of justification, when God declares a person to be righteous who is not righteous in his own life. With this declaration of justification, God removes the person’s guilt and gives them the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That’s the spiritual riches that have currency in heaven.
This tax collector, this sinner, this unjust man, called upon the mercy and grace of God, and he walked away that day justified before God. Jesus said in vs 14, “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
James states this principle in James 4:6, saying, ““GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.” The key to humility before God is not to take refuge in your goodness, or your good works, but to recognize you are a sinner, and to call out like this tax collector, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” And to that prayer of repentance and faith, God promises to respond with mercy and grace that you might receive the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sin.
I pray that no one hearing my voice today is taking refuge in their keeping of religious rituals and ceremonies, in their merit, in their good works, but that you have confessed that you are a sinner, and trusted in the atonement of Jesus Christ for your justification. That you might claim the righteousness of Jesus Christ for your salvation. That simple prayer of the publican is all that is required; God be merciful to me, the sinner.