Preached August 22nd by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican). Part of our Big Read series on the Parables of Jesus.
Holy Father, may what this parable proclaims never become old news to us. May the Gospel our Lord be ever new this morning and be embraced by all who hear it. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Picture, If You Will (v. 10)
Picture, if you will, the setting of today’s parable. The people of God “go up” to the Temple. It’s the time of the twice-daily atonement sacrifice and prayer. A lamb is offered for the sins of the people. In this, they are assured that the way to God is open. Incense is offered and burned before the face of God, and the prayers of Israel ascend with it.
Two men in this crowd catch your eye. One confidently takes his stand near the front. He’s set apart from the crowd, but close enough to hear. The other is also set apart from the crowd, but stands far off, in the back. He is murmuring, his gaze is downward. Whatever he is saying is not meant for you to hear.
When the service is over, both men “go down” to their homes, but only one is reconciled, and it’s not the one you think.
Jesus here tells a parable that would have shocked his listeners. For all of his confrontations with the Pharisees, they were highly regarded as holy by the people. Tax collectors were the scum of the earth to an Israelite. They grubbed money and colluded with the Romans for profit. Jesus might as well have told a parable contrasting the governor of Maryland and a drug dealer.
This parable of salvation captures the heart of the Christian faith. Everything that we cannot miss to be right with God is contained in the six verses of this story. It’s not simply a parable about prayer, but about the true foundation of our relationship to God. And if we find it too familiar, let us remember, in the words of Ken Bailey, “the more familiar a parable [is], the more it cries out to be rescued from the barnacles that have attached themselves to it.” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 27) As we do that, let’s take the characters in turn.
The Pharisee (vs. 9, 11-12)
First, the Pharisee. He stands confidently, but he stands confidently in the wrong place! Look at the words of his prayer. Arthur Just writes, “Even in private prayer, Jews usually do not pray silently, so this Pharisee probably prayed so that others would hear him. This is the point of his prayer! The picture here, then, is of a man who is arrogant and elitist. He sets himself apart from the rest of the worshipers but within earshot so that they can observe his piety and hear his prayer. He wants to impress those around him. (Luke 9:52-24:53, pg. 682)
What most strikes me is that there is no petition in the man’s prayer (if it can be called prayer at all)! He has no need for God. It’s no accident that right after this parable, we hear of the children being brought to Jesus. Jesus declares, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:17) Whoever God is to this Pharisee, he is not his Father. For children always come in need. There is no need in this man. Therefore he cannot be received. It is axiomatic in Scripture that you cannot receive from God if your hands are already full.
Recently, I sat across the table from a man who told me of the ravages of alcoholism on his life. He described how he lost his money, how he lost his freedom through a DUI conviction, and the shame that accompanied that loss. But when help was offered for his addiction, he still believed that he could handle it all. And the most that I could say to him was, “when you are ready, I know someone who specialized in the removal of shame. He’s the best there is.” Our hands have to be empty before we can receive the mercy of God. Which brings us to the tax collector.
The Tax Collector (vs. 13-14)
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful (ἱλάσθητί) to me, a sinner!’
With these words we move from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee to the imputed righteousness the tax collector received. It’s no coincidence that just a chapter later Jesus will bring salvation to the house of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector. That salvation will issue forth in truly good works.
Let’s zoom in on verse 13. What does the tax collector say to the Lord? As the daily sacrifice is offered, as the blood is sprinkled on the high altar, he cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This is the heart of our approach to God and what gives security to our way. The word translated as “be merciful” is incredibly significant. We could translate it as “make atonement for me!”
This is true prayer! The tax collector’s sins are above his head and he knows it! He looks away from himself, and looks to God to deal with his sin. Some of you may know that the tax collector’s prayer is the basis for the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We need to say here: one of the criticisms on the church from our culture is that the church spends too much time talking about sin and sinners. That’s like saying that a doctor is unloving for giving his patient an accurate diagnosis. We don’t do this because we simply want to come down on people, but because we want the need of people to be unmasked. Laid bare in the presence of God. Dealt with. And that’s what happens.
Look at verse 14:“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (δεδικαιωμένος), rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Here is the shocking reversal: this man and not the Pharisee returns home right with God – justified, righteous, cleansed, forgiven. Again the word here is incredibly significant. It’s in the perfect tense in the Greek, which means that it expresses a reality having been completed in the past, once and for all, not needing to be repeated. It speaks to the foundation of our relationship with God. This man is declared to be innocent. He given a new status before God. He is at peace.
Reflecting on the Parable
Let’s end our time together this morning with some reflection questions on the parable.
Where is our confidence this morning?
The Pharisee’s confidence was in the wrong place. The tax collector’s confidence was in the right place. One commentator writes: “The Pharisee talks as if there were no righteous person on earth as noble as he, while the tax collector prays as if there were no sinner on earth as evil as he.” (Ibn al-Tayyib, Tafsir al-Mashariqi, pg. 2:315). As backwards as it sounds, stability and maturity in the Christian life comes as we learn to place more and more of confidence in the Lord. For when we are weak, then we are strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10) The cross grows bigger, not smaller!
How is our perception this morning?
Is self-righteousness clouding our picture of ourselves? Is it keeping us from truly drawing near to God in faith?
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion contains the perceptive insight that knowing God and knowing ourselves are intimately linked together. Not knowing God rightly leads to deception about ourselves.
From James Boice: “To know God as the sovereign God of the universe is to know ourselves as His subjects, in rebellion against him. To know God in His holiness is to know ourselves as sinners. To know Him as love is to see ourselves as loved though unlovely. To seek God’s wisdom is to see our own foolishness in spiritual things. Since God is the only standard by which any of those things can be measured, we do not know anything properly unless we know Him. Or to put it in other terms, if we do not know God, we consider ourselves to be sovereign over our own lives, holy, loving, wise, and so on, when in reality we are none of those things.” (The Parables of Jesus, pg. 87)
But also, is a false perception of ourselves and of God keeping us from truly serving our neighbor, as it did the Pharisee? The Pharisee couldn’t even stand with the crowd, much less minister to them. Self-righteousness will do that in every sphere of life.
Where is our worth?
As I mentioned before, the Pharisee’s prayer can hardly be called a prayer at all. God is mentioned once – the man himself is mentioned five times. He was praying in his own name. If you choose to relate to God by your accomplishments, you will always be on shaky ground. It will never be enough. There will also be a question mark over your worth. The tax collector’s worth was in what God thought of him, in the atonement that God provided for him, not what he thought of himself.
Do we know our need? Is God our Father?
One of the reasons why we practice corporate confession together is so that we can remember our need! So that, whether or not we feel our need, we can relate to God as our Father and we as his children. Is your Christian life filled with petition? Do you come to God in need? A healthy Christian life is one filled with need for and dependence upon God. So today “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
And so, to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all the praise, honor and glory, now and forevermore! Amen.