The gospel of Luke is continuing to ask and answer the question: Who is in the kingdom of God? Or to put the question another way: Who can be justified before God? In this parable Jesus is going to show who is justified before God and how such a one is justified. This parable is going to show two people trying two different means to find justification.
Before the parable begins, Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to people who trusted in themselves for righteousness and treated others with contempt. The problem is clearly stated. Jesus is dealing with people who are trusting in themselves for salvation and justification. In trusting in themselves, they are treating other people with contempt. A term that we frequently use is that these people were self-righteous. So the parable is going to describe them and their error so they will understand how one enters the kingdom of God.
The parable begins with two men going up to the temple for prayer. There were two periods of public prayer each day (9am and 3pm). We don’t think of prayer in these terms but this is what the Jewish people did in the first century, and we see this prayer activity throughout the book of Acts. The two people who go up in this prayer are the two extremes in Jewish society. First, the Pharisees is one of the extremely religious people in that day. We have seen them on many occasions in our study of Luke’s gospel. They were the people who showed contempt and filled with disdain for others who were not like them. The other person is the tax collector. The tax collector was the villain of the day. Consider how the complaint against Jesus was that he ate with sinners and tax collectors. Tax collectors were considered the worst of people, usually being thieves, extortioners, and traitors to the Jewish nation. Tax collectors were hated sinners. The two people are a contrast of extremes. The Pharisee represents the moral, righteous person. The tax collector represents the vile, immoral person.
There are two ways to understand what the Pharisee does in the parable. He is either standing by himself as he begins his prayer or he is praying about himself, and the translations and scholars are divided about which way to understand what he does. I think the NET captures the idea well: “The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this:” As you read the prayer you will see that this is exactly what the Pharisee is doing. He is praying about himself. His prayer is not really toward God but in contempt toward others. The Pharisee shows his moral uprightness in the words of his prayer. The Pharisee exalts himself above others before God because of all his righteous acts. He is not an extortioner. He is not an adulterer. He is not even like this tax collector. He fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all that he gets. This person is moral and he is extra religious. He fasts more than the law required and he is careful in giving a tenth of everything, as the law required.
Why does he think that he is in the kingdom of God? How does he think justification occurs? He thinks he has justification because of all the things he is doing. He thinks he is a good, moral person. Look at all the good things he is doing. He is not like those awful people in the world. He is certainly not like this immoral, vile tax collector. This is what the religious and secular world thinks about justification today. People think that they just need to go to a church somewhere and they will be found justified in the sight of God. Some people think that they need to be charitable and give their money to others. Some think that they just need to be generally good, fairly moral, and not as bad as these other terrible people who are thieves and murderers. Most believe justification is found in “making a difference” and “leaving the world better than you found it.”
But here is the shocker to the story. According to verse 14, this person is not justified. The moral, upright person with all of his religious acts is not justified. Why? How can this be? The problem is that he thinks he is righteous by what he does. The Pharisees had not listened to the prophets which declared this truth. David declared, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” (Psalm 51:16 ESV)
The prophet Hosea declared, “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:4–6 ESV)
Isaiah spoke similarly: “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:5–6 NIV2011)
Our righteous acts do not bring about our justification. This is the problem with the Pharisees, as verse 9 notes. He trusted in himself for righteousness. He relied upon his own actions to save him. The problem is that there is not one person righteous (Romans 3:9; cf. Psalm 14:1). How easy it is for us to slip into the same kind of thinking! We read this story and thank God that we are not like the Pharisee! Our actions cannot justify us.
The Tax Collector
What made the tax collector different? Why would Jesus endorse this immoral tax collector as one who is justified and entering the kingdom of God rather than the Pharisee? First, the humility of the tax collector pours out with every description. Verse 13 reveals that the tax collector will not even approach the temple. As he comes up to the temple for prayer, he will not draw near but stands afar off. He recognizes his unworthiness to approach God. He does not lift up his eyes. The lifting of the eyes was a normal posture for Jewish prayer. Yet this is another sign of humility that he will not even look up toward heaven. Further, he beats his chest, which was a sign of extreme sorrow and contrition. The beating of the chest was not normal for Jewish prayer. God honors the humble. God exalts the humble (cf. James 4:8-10). God wants a humble and contrite heart (cf. Psalm 51:17). The tax collector is showing a humble heart.
Further, he has a humble heart that understand he needs atonement and mercy. His words are not about his actions. He does not give a list about the good things that he has certainly done in his life. He does not speak about how he is better than certain people. He does say that he has a better heart than that lousy Pharisee. What is there to say before the Lord regarding our justification? It is certainly not, “Look at all that I have done!” The tax collector understands that we do not want God to look at all we have done. When God looks at what we have done, we must quickly utter the words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We must quickly call out for atonement, for a covering over of our sins. To think that we can stand on our actions and stand on our righteousness is the pinnacle of arrogance and pride. Do we truly think that our actions can justify us before the Almighty God? The tax collector understood his need for mercy and repentance.
So how do good works fit into the picture? So often people will discard good works as if they are not relevant. Our good works do not justify us. Our good works do not enter us into the kingdom of God. Jesus already explained the value of our good works earlier in this gospel.
“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10 ESV) Our good works are not meritorious; they are what we were supposed to do as our duty in the first place. Is there anything praiseworthy for you stopping at a traffic light? No, because that is what you were supposed to do. No one at the police department is giving you a prize for that. Our good works do nothing to justify ourselves. Our good works are what were required of us to begin with. Those good works come because we see that God has been merciful to us as sinners. Let’s close with how we can the heart of the tax collector and not the heart of the Pharisee.
I am the Pharisee…
- When I compare myself to others and congratulate myself for being more spiritual than they are.
- When I am impressed by how much I am giving to God and doing for God.
- When I think others’ sins are worse than mine.
I find justification…
- When I see myself rightly — a sinner.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15–17 ESV)
- When I measure myself to the holiness of God, not others.
- When I have a sense of the shame from my sin and recognize the alienation my sin has caused between me and God.
- When I know that I am unworthy of the kingdom.
- When I admit I am a sinner, confessing it to God and to others.