The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector: On Humility

January 30, 2022 ()

Bible Text: Luke 18:9-14 |


The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: On Humility | Luke 18:9-14
Brian Hedges | January 30, 2022

Let’s turn in our Bibles this morning to Luke 18. While you’re turning there, let me just tell you about an encounter you had—this was probably between 20 and 25 years ago, before I was a pastor. I worked for a number of years for a retail store in Lubbock, Texas, and most of the time I was working in a stock room or in the warehouse. I was kind of the stock room supervisor for that store during those years. Lots of people came through over the years, and I would have opportunities to work with people for long hours, and would often try to share the gospel with people. Now, I never felt like I was a natural evangelist or particularly good at it, but I would try, and I had a number of these gospel conversations.

One guy was a pretty rough young man who started working for the store. Everybody called him Bubba. This was a guy that would sometimes come in with a hangover in the mornings, and he was just a pretty rough character, lived a very rough life.

The very first morning, we were talking, and I think we were talking about politics or something, and I made a comment that was just trying to turn the conversation towards spiritual things. He immediately put up his defenses. He said, “Yes, I already know about you. When they hired me they told me about you in the back and that you would probably talk to me about Jesus. I’m just going to tell you right now I’m an atheist.”

This is what came to my mind; this is what I said. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I believe, actually, is that good people go to hell and bad people go to heaven.”

He looked at me with this curious look on his face and he said, “What? Well, I have to hear about this!”

I said, “Well, when Jesus came, he said, ‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”

I talked to him, of course, about self-righteousness and people who think they’re good are actually condemned, and it’s the sinners who repent and trust Christ who are saved. So we ended up having a gospel conversation, and a number of conversations over the next few weeks before he got fired because he didn’t show up two or three days in a row. So it wasn’t a long-lasting friendship, but it was still an attempt.

I tell you that story because I think the shock value of the statement that I tried to make, “Good people go to hell, bad people go to heaven,” the shock value of that statement is something that Jesus was continually trying to get across through his parables. We’ve been looking at some of those parables, and today we’re going to look at one that I think is so familiar to those of us who are in church that it’s easy for us to lose the shock value of the story. It’s in Luke 18:9-14, and it’s the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Now, when we hear this story, most of us are used to think about Pharisees in a negative way. Even in popular culture, if the word Pharisee is used, it’s always going to be someone who is self-righteous or someone who is hypocritical or whatever. But during Jesus’ day and in that time, when people heard a story about the Pharisees and tax collectors, they immediately would have thought of the Pharisee as the good guy. The tax collector was the bad guy.

Tax collectors were notorious for, as Jewish people, working for the Roman government. They were collecting taxes from Jewish people, and they were adding to it. They weren’t just collecting tax at the toll booth, they were extortionists. They were skimming off the top, so to speak. They were doing everything they could to take advantage of other people. So they were really the low life. They were considered criminals, outcasts.

The Pharisees were like your upstanding citizens of the community. They were the best church members, so to speak, the best synagogue members. They would have been the leaders in the community. The Pharisees were the people you wanted for your neighbor. They were the moral, clean-living, conservative, godly people of the day. So when Jesus tells this story, it’s a shocking story to all those who hear. So try to listen to it with fresh eyes and ears as we read it together, and then let’s consider what Jesus says. Luke 18:9.

“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.’”

This is God’s word.

Let’s try to dig into this and uncover what Jesus here is teaching us. I’ll just say right at the outset that Jesus’ lesson, Jesus’ teaching here, has both a theological point to make and a practical point to make. Theologically, he’s telling us something very important about salvation, about justification, and practically he is telling us what true humility is and the heart that God delights in, the humble heart.

I want to give you a threefold outline as we try to dig in, and really we’re just going to kind of look through the text. I want you to see:

1. The Pharisee’s Boastful Prayer (vv. 10-12)
2. The Tax Collector’s Plea for Mercy (v. 13)
3. Jesus’ Shocking Point (v. 9, 14)

1. The Pharisee’s Boastful Prayer

So, look first of all at the boast of the Pharisees in verses 10-12. Let me read that again. “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.’” (Luke 18:10-12)

The first thing you notice here about this Pharisee and the way Jesus describes him is that he seems very self-confident. When he’s praying, his prayer is a prayer that’s full of confidence, right? He’s praying like this: “God, I thank you,” so he’s listing off the things he is thankful for.

Now, when you dig into it, you see that all these things are moral things, they are religious things; they are things that actually would be good to be true of your life. It would be good if you were not an extortioner, not unjust, not an adulterer; good if you fast twice a week (this was way above and beyond what the Old Testament law required, but it was typical for Pharisees, who would fast on Mondays and Thursdays); and giving tithes of all you possess. These are good things that he is praying about.

The problem with his prayer is he is so self-referential and actually even self-righteous. Notice in the prayer that he uses this first person pronoun “I” five times in just a few sentences. It’s very self-referential. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” It’s I, I, I.

When my brothers and I were kids we used to play this game in the car when we were on long trips, and we just called it "the I game." The object of the game was to speak for as long as you possibly could without using the word “I.” So we would create all kinds of convoluted sentences: “Me thinks you’re going to use this game. Me is not going to lose the game.” I mean, it was just really stupid. But we could never go for more than five minutes or so without somebody tripping up and saying I, because we’re just so self-referential in our vocabulary.

That’s how this man is in his prayer. But he’s sincere, and I don’t want you to miss this. Jesus says nothing about the man to indicate here that he is hypocritical. He’s sincere. He actually does think this. He is praying to God, and he feels good about himself. This is why self-righteousness can be so subtle. It can be so subtle because we can feel like we are good.

I’ll give you a comment here from Ronald Wallace, followed by an illustration. Both of these I’m drawing from Dale Ralph Davis’s commentary. Ronald Wallace writes this about the Pharisee. I thought this was really insightful.

He said, “The Pharisee had beautiful religious feelings when he went to the temple. He felt right with God and with life. So comforting were his religious feelings that he felt sure he was in the kingdom of God. His heart told him so. But his heart told him a lie.”

Then Davis reminded me of this story from The Pilgrim’s Progress. In Pilgrim’s Progress there’s a point where Christian and Hopeful are in conversation and a young man joins them. They’re on the road and they’re talking. They’re on the way to the Celestial City, right, and they’re talking. So they ask this young man, “Why is he persuaded that he has left all for the kingdom of God and for heaven?” What’s the proof? What’s the evidence that you’ve actually done this?

He says, “My heart has told me so.”

They begin to ask him, “Well, does your life, your behavior, your actions, your lifestyle, is it actually consistent with your heart? Do you heart and life agree?”

He says, “Yes!”

They say, “How do you know that?”

He says, “My heart tells me so.”

You know what the young man’s name was? Ignorance. He was ignorant of his own heart and his own motive. He was sincere, but sincerely wrong.

That’s the Pharisee here. The Pharisee has good feelings, he is sincere, he is moral, he is religious, but he’s focused on himself.

Here’s the tell. You know how gamblers always have a tell? It somebody’s playing a game of poker, there’s always a tell when they’re bluffing. They touch their face in a certain way or whatever. People who play at religion always have a tell, and here’s a tell: his contempt for others.

You see it in how the parable is set up in verse 9. Luke says this, that “Jesus told the parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt,” and then you see the contempt in action at the end of verse 11 when he says, “God, I thank you that I am not even like this tax collector.” His contempt for others; that was the tell of his self-righteousness.

You know, the real problem with this man’s righteousness is that his whole understanding of righteousness was externalistic. He was measuring righteousness only by looking at outward behaviors, and he had not really reckoned with the true inward requirements of God’s law, he had not really reckoned with the inward nature of sin. So he didn’t see himself clearly. He measured himself by comparing himself with others, but he did not see himself clearly.

I think the reality is that he wasn’t really even praying. The way Jesus states it here, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus.” He was really just kind of praying to himself, he was talking to himself. He was praying with himself. Even though he addressed God in terms of his words, he had not really come before God with any kind of reverence, any kind of humility, with any kind of real consciousness of the presence of God. The problem was his pride.

Has God ever shown you your pride and your self-righteousness? I’ll tell you, for me this has been like peeling layers off an onion. I just keep seeing new layers of it.

I remember early on in my Christian life where this would reveal itself in pretty nasty ways. When I was a young man I traveled for several years with Life Action Ministries; many of you know that ministry. It was a wonderful, formative experience for me. But I was really young and I was taking all these ideas to heart, and some of it was going to my head.

I remember one time when I was home on vacation, I had started having, during that period of my life, religiously having my morning quiet time. But I still liked to sleep late, right? So one morning I was home with my family on a break, and everybody in my family (or a lot of people) were going to be going to town that morning. I’d slept kind of late, but I was insistent that I needed to have my quiet time before we left. I was really just inconveniencing everybody else.

My dad is a humble, wise pastor, and by the end of the day he gently corrected me, that my attitude was really inconveniencing other people. The deal was, I thought I was spending time with the Lord; I was really spending time with my habit. I was so self-righteous about it.

I think it was shortly after that that I was back on the road with this team, and people in the teams would be stationed in a prayer room, where you’d spend the entire time during a service where people would gather for worship and preaching, and some of the team members would spend time in prayer. I just became incensed that some of the other team members were not showing up on time or were not praying consistently or were in there talking. I started complaining about that.

Again, someone who is a good friend and a wise mentor and kind of my manager at that time came and talked to me, and he said, “Brian, I actually want to pull you out of the prayer room, and I want you to sit in the service, and I want you to listen and see what God has to say to you.” I remember then hearing a sermon on Naaman and the pride of Naaman, and God began to pinpoint the pride and the self-righteousness in my heart.

There are layers to this, even deeper, more painful layers that began to come out once I was married, in my attitudes towards Holly in our early marriage.

Has that begun to happen to you, that you’ve begun to see your pride and your self-righteousness? What is pride? Someone defined it like this: “Pride is a blend of self-absorption (that is, narcissism) with an overestimate of one’s abilities or worth; that’s conceit. A proud person thinks a lot about herself and also thinks a lot of herself.”

Get that. Get the definition. Pride is thinking much about oneself and pride is thinking much of oneself. Are you a proud person, a self-righteous person?

Let me ask you some diagnostic questions. This comes from Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, whom many of you will know. She lists 41 evidences of pride. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through all 41, okay? But let me read a few, and see if any of these hit home.

  • Do you look down on those who are less educated, less affluent, less refined, or less successful than yourself?
  • Do you have a judgmental spirit toward those who don’t make the same lifestyle choices you do . . . dress standards, how you school your kids, entertainment standards, etc.?
  • Do you have a sharp, critical tongue?
  • Are you proud of the schedule you keep, how disciplined you are, how much you are able to accomplish?
  • Are you argumentative?
  • Do you generally think your way is the right way, the only way, or the best way?
  • Do you have a touchy, sensitive spirit? Easily offended? Get your feelings hurt easily?
  • Do you have a hard time admitting when you are wrong?
  • Do you have a hard time confessing your sin to God or others? (not just in generalities but specifics)
  • Do you have a hard time sharing your real spiritual needs/struggles with others?
  • Do you resent being asked to serve?
  • Do you become defensive when you are criticized or corrected?
  • Are you a perfectionist? Do you get irked or impatient with people who aren’t?
  • Do you frequently interrupt people when they are speaking?
  • Do you talk about yourself too much?
  • Are you more concerned about your problems, needs, burdens than about others’ concerns?
  • Do you get hurt if your accomplishments or acts of service are not recognized or rewarded?
  • Do you react to rules? Do you have a hard time being told what to do?
  • When is the last time you said these words to a family member, friend, or coworker: “I was wrong; would you please forgive me?” (If it’s been more than a month, mark it down!)
  • Are you sitting here thinking that many of these questions apply to someone you know?
  • Are you feeling pretty good that none of these things apply to you?

Do you see how subtle pride and self-righteousness can be? That was the problem with the Pharisee, a good man externally, but his righteousness was surface level, and his heart was proud, exalted, self-righteous, corrupt.

2. The Tax Collector’s Plea for Mercy

In contrast to the Pharisee, you have the cry or the plea of the tax collector. It’s so simple; it’s just seven words in English, six words in Greek. Look at what Jesus says about him.

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying [a short, simple prayer], ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13)

Again, you have to remember how despised the tax collectors were. "Tax collectors were so despised that rabbis denied them the right to appear as witnesses in court. They were confined to the same class as gamblers, robbers, the violent, shepherds, and slaves,” says one commentary.

Contemporary parallels would be something like this. I’m going to give you shocking examples.

These two people come up to pray, and one is a respected church elder; the other is a member of the KKK, a racist.

Two people came up to church to pray; one of them was a faithful deacon who’d been serving for many years; the other was a convicted sex offender.

Two people came up to pray; one of them was known as the most righteous person in the community, the other was a drug dealer, a well-known pimp.

I mean, that’s how despised, that’s how shocking this is. You have to get this. Here’s someone who is utterly despised because of the actual moral choices he had made. He is not a good man. He’s a bad person; he’s a sinner. But he comes to the temple to pray, and what’s really in his heart comes out. You see it in his posture, his demeanor, and in his prayer.

In his posture—he stands far off. Maybe he’s all the way in the outer court of the Gentiles at the temple, but he’s certainly not drawing near where the more religious and pious people would be. He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven. The standard posture for prayer at the temple was to stand with your eyes lifted to heaven, but he wouldn’t do that. Instead, he’s bowed over, and he’s beating on his breast.

That’s interesting, because it is a sign of anguish. One scholar, Kenneth Bailey, in his book Through Peasant’s Eyes, he says that this was usually an outward sign of emotion that was only used by women, but a man would never do this. A man would never do this in public; he would never beat on his breast. It was too outward, it was too expressive. But here’s this man, and he is beating on his chest because of the anguish that he feels.

That’s his demeanor, and then look at the prayer. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” It’s not just, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In the Greek, there’s the definite article before “sinner.” It’s, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He feels himself to be the chief of sinners, the worst of sinners. He’s not really thinking about anybody else in the room, or if he is, he feels like he’s worse than everybody else. He feels a certain isolation over his sins. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” The sinner; that’s who he is.

Then he prays for mercy, and this also is quite interesting, because the word that’s used here, “be merciful to me, the sinner,” or, “have mercy on me, the sinner,” that word is not the usual word that’s used for mercy. It’s not the word that’s used, for example, later on in the chapter when someone comes to Jesus asking for mercy. This is a verb that is used only one other time in the New Testament, and that is found in Hebrews 2:17, which is talking about Jesus and his priestly work. This is what it says. “Therefore, Jesus had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to [here’s the word] make propitiation for the sins of the people.” That’s the verb. That’s what the word means. It means to make propitiation.

What is a propitiation? It’s an atoning sacrifice. In fact, this Greek word is related to the word for the mercy seat. Do you remember what the mercy seat was? That word popped up in one of our songs this morning. Do you remember what the mercy seat was? The mercy seat was the lid on the ark of the covenant, which was this box, right, that held within it the tables of the law, and it was in the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle or the temple, and it was where the high priests would go once a year on the Day of Atonement, and he would sprinkle the blood of an atoning sacrifice on the mercy seat as he was praying for the sins of the people of Israel to be forgiven.

That’s the idea here. When this man prays, he’s not simply praying for mercy, he is praying for mercy through atonement. He’s praying, “God, atone for my sins. Be merciful to me, be propitiated towards me. Cover my sins.” He seems to know that he needs to be forgiven and that the only way he can be forgiven is through a sacrifice of atonement.

When you pray, do you pray like that? Do you come feeling the weight of your sins, feeling the guilt of your sins, feeling the burden of your sins, and then you bring those sins to God and you say, “God, be merciful to me,” and you’re not asking him to be merciful to you because of anything in you, but because of something outside of you, a sacrifice of atonement. Do you pray like this? In the words of an old hymn-writer:

Be merciful, O God, to me;
Thy mercy is my only plea.
Look with compassion on my woes
And let not judgment interpose.

Guilty before thy face I stand,
And fear thy sin-avenging hand;
Hell as my just desert I own,
But mercy plead before thy throne.

Do you ever pray like that? “Lord, I know I deserve hell, but I’m asking for mercy.”

Mercy through Jesus crucified
I ask, and can I be denied?
Mercy, O God; I ask no more!
Thrust not my soul from mercy’s door!

O God, as powerful as just,
In thee and thee alone I trust.
Vain does the help of man appear,
Vain is help of angels here.

Nothing will give my spirit rest
Till pardoning mercy makes me blest.
Behold, I faint beneath thy frown;
Send, send the cheering cordial down.

Here’s someone who is conscious of the guilt of his sins, that they deserve judgment, that God would be right to be angry at those sins, and who’s praying for mercy for Jesus’ sake, mercy through Jesus crucified.

That’s the heart of this man as he prays, the tax collector’s plea. He’s praying for mercy, mercy through an atoning sacrifice. If you’ve never prayed that way, do so today. Confess your sins, ask God to forgive you for Jesus’ sake.

3. Jesus’ Shocking Point

The final thing is Jesus’ shocking point. What is Jesus after in this parable? Luke tells us in verse 9, “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” So he’s aiming at self-righteousness and at this attitude that is contemptuous towards others, looking down at others.

Then look at what Jesus says. This is the punchline to the parable. This is, as I keep saying, the sting in the tail. This is the punch in the gut that comes at the end of the story. This is where the real conviction is.

Jesus says in verse 14, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] 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.” That’s the shocking point. Those who exalt themselves are humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted.

I think you can see two applications of this, and the first one is in relationship to salvation. I think this is clearly intended in the context, because Luke tells us Jesus is speaking to those who trust in themselves, that they are righteous, and at the end of the parable he uses a cognate of that word, righteous, when he says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified,” or declared righteous.

Jesus here is telling how someone can be justified. How can someone be right with God? Don’t ever think that the doctrine of justification by faith is something that Paul came up with! It’s right here in the teaching of Jesus. What he is saying is that the way a person can be right with God and be justified is not through their keeping of the law, it’s not through their piety, it’s not through their religion, it’s not through their morality, it’s not through their works, it’s not through how good they are. That can never give you this verdict of righteousness. The only way is through the simple, humble prayer of faith: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s the only way. It’s justification by faith alone.

In fact, as Grant Osborne notes, “The two terms here, propitiation [“be merciful to me”] and justification stand side by side in Paul’s justly famous definition of justification in Romans 3:20-24. So this is the primary statement of salvation in Luke.” Because Paul says we are justified by grace through his gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forward as a propitiation through faith in his blood (Romans 3:24-25). We are justified through the propitiatory work of Christ on the cross. Through Jesus dying as the atoning sacrifice; that’s how we’re justified. Here we’re getting that in seed form, embryonic form, in the very teaching of Jesus.

What this means for us is this, that the only way for you to be saved and for me to be saved is through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross. “Trusting in Jesus and his finished work with all our hearts.” It’s one of our core values as a church; it’s the gospel. We trust in what Christ has done.

I love those words of Isaac Watts:

No more, my God, I boast no more
Of all the duties I have done.
I quit the hopes I held before
And trust the merits of thy Son.

The best obedience of my hands
Dares not appear before thy throne,
But faith can answer thy demands
By pleading what my Lord has done.

How can you be saved? Only through Christ and faith in his blood. He who humbles himself by confessing his sins and trusting in Christ alone will be exalted, justified.

This applies to salvation, and then this shocking point also applies to our whole lives as Christians, and especially in the realm of servanthood in our relationships. The reason I’m saying that is because Jesus makes this statement: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus actually makes that statement three times. Here’s another one in Matthew 23:11-12, another chapter that excoriates the Pharisees. In verses 11-12 Jesus says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Here’s the deal, folks. The grace of humility that is so characteristic of the broken-hearted sinner who depends on God’s mercy for his salvation always bleeds over into relationships.

I said a while ago that the tell for the self-righteous person is this contempt of others, it’s pride, it’s the disdain that he feels towards others. It’s the lack of a humble attitude towards other people. That shows up in a lack of servanthood and compassion and caring for others.

Directly opposite to that, the tell for the truly humble person is how that person relates to other people. She serves, she humbles herself, she doesn’t consider any task to great for her. She’s willing to give of herself to others. Why? Because she’s already been humbled before the face of God, and that humility then bleeds over into relationships.

Isn’t this exactly the mindset of Jesus Christ? Do you remember Philippians 2? Jesus Christ, though he’s in the very form of God, equal to God, he humbled himself, he took the place of the servant, he was obedient even to death on a cross; and therefore God has highly exalted him. That’s the path, that’s the pattern of salvation, it’s the pattern of discipleship, because it is the very pattern, the very path that Jesus himself walked. Humbled, then exalted. That has to flesh itself out in our lives.

So let’s ask ourselves, here at the end, what should this look like in our lives? Do I have the humble heart of a servant? I think it’s really interesting in this parable that the way it’s worded, Jesus doesn’t actually say the humble will be exalted. He doesn’t use the noun. He doesn’t say the humble will be exalted, he says, “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” That’s action. It’s not just a quality of your heart, but the expression of that in action. It’s when you humble yourself, you actively do things that humble yourself. Then you are exalted.

We have to measure this in action in our lives. It’s the one who humbles himself, herself who is exalted. How are you humbling yourself before God, before others? Are you trusting in Christ alone for salvation, and does the humility you experience before the face of God bleed over into your relationships with others, so that you take the place of the servant?

Martin Luther, in a bold generalization, one time said, “There are only two sorts of people in the world: sinners who think themselves righteous and the righteous who think themselves sinners.”

Which kind of person are you?

Let’s pray.

Father in heaven, I pray right now that your Holy Spirit would take these heart-piercing words of Jesus and apply them to each one of us personally. Father, help us to see ourselves more clearly, help us to see our sins in such a way that self-righteousness and pride is stripped away and we humble ourselves before your face, before your throne. May the experience, then, of your mercy and your grace through Jesus Christ be so transforming in our lives that humility, as growing, increasing humility—we’re all in process here, but may this growth in humility be the characteristic, dominant note in our lives, in our relationships with one another. We need your grace and we ask you to give that to us this morning.

As we come to the table, may we come with humble hearts, looking away from ourselves to the once and for all finished sacrifice of Jesus Christ. May we draw near to you through faith in his blood, and may we experience your presence. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.