Certainty In Uncertain Times: Luke 18:9-14 – What Is Your Attitude About Yourself – Righteous Or A Sinner?

Grace For The Journey

We looked at verses 1 through 8 Chapter 18 on Monday.  Today we are going to pick up at verse 9.  Contextually, in verse 8 Jesus has just asked, “When the Son of Man comes (that is, when Christ returns) will He really find faith on the earth?”  What we have in the next few verses is a parable of what that faith looks like.  We have a parable of two people . . .

One who will not be found with faith when the Son of Man returns


One who will be found with faith when the Son of Man returns. 

We get used to doing things a certain way, we become overly familiar with them.  It is like the first time we learned to drive a straight shift and back the car out of the driveway.  We were focused on everything we had learned: put your right foot on the brake, left foot on the clutch, put the gear in reverse, ease up off the clutch with the left foot, give it gas with the right foot, and look in the rearview mirror.  It seemed it required all of our focus and energy.  But now we do not even think about what we are doing; just hop in the car, cup in left hand, biscuit and gear shifter in the right hand, rolling the car quickly backwards while we chomp on our breakfast. Familiarity with what was once unfamiliar.

Christians face the danger of having heard the Gospel so many times that we hardly hear the words of Jesus anymore.  We’re so familiar with them.  If we hear Jesus speaking at all, we feel He must be speaking to someone else.  In the words of Kent Hughes, “We have heard the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector so often that it has become to us like a comfortable old slipper that other people wear.”  I pray we all we hear this parable in a fresh new way, not looking around to see whether other people are listening to it, but purposefully and actively listening ourselves.  This is God’s Word.  He is speaking to us.  If we have “ears to hear” He will speak directly to us in this study.

As we look to our Bibles open before us we find straightaway that we are left in no doubt as to why Jesus told this parable.  Verse 9 tells us, “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”  Why did Jesus tell this parable?  He was addressing a problem.  What was the problem?  Verse 9 tells us there were “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”  That is why Jesus told this parable, or short story. Jesus tolt this for two reasons: 1) To address: those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous; and, 2) to address those who despised others. 

Luke has just told us that Jesus is getting ready to tell a story – a story that will illustrate the problem of people trusting in their own goodness while, at the same time, hating others

Verse 10 introduces us to the story, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  We must remember that when Jesus initially told this parable that people heard him differently than we do today.  We hear the word “pharisee” and we immediately think “bad guy.”  We have got to remember that Jesus’ first hearers would have heard the word “pharisee” and thought, “good guy.”  This was the religious one, the spiritual one, the good one.

There are two men in verse 10, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  Jesus says they both went up to the temple to pray.  Public, corporate prayer, would occur twice – at 9 AM (Acts 2:15) and 3 PM (Acts 3:1), but the temple was always open and folks who lived nearby were blessed to go pray whenever they wished. 

Let’s look now to the prayers of each one. First, the pharisee in verse 11, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.’”  Let’s break this down.  First, verse 11 says, “The Pharisee stood.”  In Jesus’ day, standing was the normal posture for prayer.  There is nothing wrong with his standing to pray.  Verse 13 notes the tax collector stood also.  What is significant, however, is that verse 13 indicates that the tax collector stood “afar of.,”  We can reasonably infer that the pharisee stood at the front of the temple where he could be seen and heard.  We may imagine the pharisee facing people nearby, standing with outstretched hands so all could see the phylacteries on his wrists and forehead.  You will remember these phylacteries were boxes containing Scripture verses, boxes attached to the wrists and forehead.  Displayed in the context of a pompous and showy prayer, these phylacteries would be nothing more than flashy spiritual accessories to accompany his impressive religious clothing.

Jesus says the pharisee stood “and prayed thus with himself.”  He prayed with himself.  The NIV has “about” himself.  It is possible to translate it even as “to” himself.  This is a self-congratulatory, self-eulogy.  The pharisee stands and reads to God his spiritual resume.  In one breath he uses the personal pronoun five times: “I, I, I, I, I.”  Note how the pharisee compares himself with others.  He says in verse 11, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers,” – then he looks over at the far end of the temple, shakes his head in disgust and says, “or even this tax collector.”

Do you hear his attitude?  The message is clear: “God, You are very fortunate to have someone like me around.”  He knows nothing of the holiness of God and the feeling of unworthiness before Him.  He knows nothing of the penitential psalms like psalm 32 or psalm 51.  He has nothing to confess.

The problem is not in the pharisee’s thanking God for keeping him from being like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers – that is not the problem.  The problem is that the pharisee has accomplished this himself.  It is he who has done the good job of not being unjust, an adulterer, and so forth.  He is not praising God nor is he asking God for any help or anything.  It is remarkable that he is praying at all because clearly he does not even need God.

The spiritual soliloquy continues in verse 12, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  Admittedly, the pharisee’s discipline and charity are impressive.  Two days a week from sunrise to sunset he ate nothing.  He gave more money than the law demanded; he gave a tithe off not just his earnings, but a tithe off “all” that he possessed, a tithe off of everything that came into his possession.  If there were other pharisees standing around while Jesus told this parable we are right in imagining that they would be nodding their heads in approval.  This pharisee was a really good guy.   

Now the contrast, verse 13, “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”  His prayer is the opening line of Psalm 51:1.  Here is a man who knew his place before God.  He knew he was a sinner.  He was, after all, a tax collector, a despised Jewish man who worked for the Romans, collecting money from others at an exorbitant rate, lining his own pockets with the profits.  He knew he was a sinner.  He felt his sins.  He could not even raise his eyes to heaven, but “beat his breast,” a sign of contrition when you cannot even express on the outside what you feel on the inside.  He knew he was a sinner.  The Greek actually uses the definite article.  It really should be translated, “God, be merciful to me THE sinner.”  Like Paul later in 1 Timothy 1:15, this tax collector would have considered himself the chief of sinners.

His prayer in verse 13 is, “God, be merciful to me.”  The original is literally, “God, propitiate me.”  It is the verb form of the noun used by Paul in Romans 3:25 where, writing of our salvation, he refers to Christ Jesus as the One “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood.”  Jesus died to propitiate the wrath of God, to satisfy God’s wrath toward us for our sin.  Jesus propitiates God’s wrath so that God’s wrath is removed and our sins are covered by Christ’s righteousness.  If by faith we believe in the work of Christ, God justifies us, declares us righteous, and gives us a new standing before God (see also 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10).

This tax collector wanted his sins covered and God’s wrath removed from him.  His plea in verse 13 is, “God, propitiate me!”  Now comes the zinger, verse 14, remember: Jesus’ original hearers – especially the pharisees – would have been shocked Christ’s conclusion in verse 14, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Not what most people in Jesus’ day would have expected.  The “bad guy” goes home from the temple justified while the “good guy” goes home from the temple not being justified.  By the way, do not miss the Christological jewel here: Jesus Christ knows the mind of God; He knows which man went down to his house justified.  How does Jesus know the mind of God?  He IS God.

The pharisee went home with God’s wrath still upon himself.  He was not saved.  He was condemned for sin, still under God’s wrath.  You ask, “How can you say that?!” Because Jesus says it.  He says it in verse 13, “I tell you, THIS man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified RATHER than the OTHER (the pharisee).”

The tax collector was justified by God – declared righteous – granted a new standing before God, a new relationship, a righteousness given to him by grace through faith.  Like Paul would say later, the tax collector is “found in Him, not having (his) own righteousness…but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).

The spiritual posture with which we pray

In our heart of hearts reveals whether

We have been made righteous by God.

With that in mind, let me ask: Who do you pray like – the tax collector or the Pharisee?  You say, “I want to pray like the tax collector.  I trust my heart is that of a changed heart.”  If so, pray this way . . .

God, Here is my Heart . . .

1) Keep Me From SELF Righteousness.

Salvation does not come by superior moral character.  In a moral character “matchup,” the pharisee wins over the tax collector.  He possessed a vastly superior moral character over the tax collector.  All his friends knew so.  All his worship buddies knew so.  All society knew so.  He was a good person … but he did not go home justified. Because he exalted himself, God humbled him.

Jesus had said this before in Luke 14:11, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  You cannot earn God’s favor by your goodness.  You cannot be saved by your self-righteousness.  You and I are sinners, and we stand in need of the righteousness of another.  Keep me from SELF righteousness. 

Number two . . .

2) Stop Me From COMPARATIVE Righteousness.

God, stop me from comparing my righteousness with the righteousness of another person.  Robert Stein writes, “Those who like the (tax collector) understand their sinful condition and know that they can only be saved by grace, find it difficult to despise others, for there is nothing of which they can boast.  Only those who possess a false confidence in their own righteousness look down at others.”

Are you ever guilty of looking down at others, comparing yourself to another person?  You look at them and you feel pretty good about yourself.  They sin in some big way and you think, “Well, at least I am not like that sorry scoundrel.”  Really think about this.  Are you guilty?  Did you look down your nose upon another brother or sister this week and tell yourself, “Well, I may not be perfect, but I didn’t do THAT!”   

As a pastor I do I great deal of counseling.  Just this past week I met with three different people, each of them dealing with what some of you might call “big time sins.”  Some might even be shocked to learn what happened in the lives of these persons.  My fear is that some of you may even say, “Well, I don’t want anything to do with someone like that, doing those kinds of things.”  But what about when you make a mistake?  You talk about the grace and mercy of God, but do you extend that same grace and mercy to others?  Honestly, sometimes I hear the kinds of judgmental comments people make and I think to myself, “Man, I know who NOT to go to when I fail.”  King David – a man after God’s own heart – with his moral failures culminating with adultery and murderous scheming would NEVER have been forgiven by some Christians.

Convicted by this unfortunate reaction of some Christians, Chuck Girard a number of years ago wrote the song, “Don’t Shoot The Wounded.”  That is – When a Christian brother or sister stumbles and sins in a big way, do not beat them while they are down.  That is acting like the pharisee in the parable.  Listen to the words of his song . . .

Don’t shoot the wounded, they need us more than ever

They need our love no matter what it is they’ve done

Sometimes we just condemn them,

And don’t take time to hear their story

Don’t shoot the wounded, someday you might be one

It’s easy to love the people who are standing hard and fast

Pressing on to meet that higher calling

But the ones who might be struggling, we tend to judge too harshly

And refuse to try and catch them when they’re falling

We put people into boxes and we draw our hard conclusions

And when they do the things we know they should not do

We sometimes write them off as hopeless

And we throw them to the dogs . . .

Don’t shoot the wounded,

Someday you might be one

One of the things that has made the church I pastor such a great church is our welcoming of people of all walks of life and our ability to be honest about our struggles, our trials, and temptations.  May we ever be a church full of saved, yet humble sinners.  May God spare us from the self-deluded, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, and self-righteous, “good” Pharisee.

Number 3 . . .

3) Clothe Me In CHRIST’S Righteousness.

The Bible says in Ephesians 6:14 that we are to put on the breastplate of righteousness, but I fear some of us would rather strap-on the breastplate of self-righteousness.  You cannot be saved by your own righteousness.  You need the righteousness of Christ.

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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