Article: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Who would you expect to get through to God in Prayer? | Jacob Varghese
Let us turn our attention to Luke 18: 9-14 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I am sure this is a very familiar parable. My reason for choosing this as our text is because the lessons of this parable are very relevant for us even today. One of the greatest parables ever told was the story of the Pharisee and the Tax collector. The story is great because the message of this parable is one of the most fundamental teachings we can have. Note that Luke 18:9 tells us why Jesus told this parable. The purpose of this parable is mentioned even before the parable begins. Jesus spoke this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt. Jesus is speaking to those who were confident of their own righteousness and despised others. He may have been targeting the Pharisees, but undoubtedly there were many others who trusted in their own righteousness as the basis of their standing before God. The Jews tended to think that being Abraham’s descendants and following the Law of Moses separated them from the Gentiles. They thought that they are above others and would be accepted into heaven because of their Jewish heritage and their moral lives. But Jesus overturned that view with this parable. Jesus explains to us that, what we think right and the best way of doing things may not necessarily be the way God sees things. He shows that the wrong way to approach God is by our own good works; the right way to approach God is as an unworthy sinner, pleading for mercy. The Lord intended that this parable should convict those who were confident of their own righteousness and those who look down own everybody else.
The scene is set in verse 10 and we understand that the Pharisee and the tax collector are the key players of this parable. They both went to the temple to pray. We need to understand who these two people are? In today’s time we always assume both the Pharisee and tax collector as bad guys. But in the days of Jesus people did not see the Pharisees as the bad guys. They were the spiritual people, religious elite, who were known for their careful observance of the Jewish law. They were important, influential and role models to follow. So they were admired and respected. Perhaps people even feared a little because of their high position and great knowledge. They were men who worked hard to obey God’s law. They were disciplined and consistent in their religious duties. Whereas who was this tax collector? A tax collector was a person whom the religious people avoided any association with as they were considered outcasts because they were known to overcharge the people. They were told by the Romans how much tax they were to collect and anything they collected over and above that amount they could keep for themselves. In fact they made a living by cheating and robbing the people so they were hated by everyone. Now let us imagine of these two men go to the temple to pray. One is a regular “church-goer,” in fact, a religious leader who has devoted himself to the things of God. May be a well respected pastor, Christian Leader or speaker, going to church to pray and the other is a selfish, dishonest, greedy man or a corrupted Income Tax Officer who has no worries about ripping off his fellow countrymen for his own advantage. Both of them are praying. Which of these two would you expect to get through to God in prayer? For us to understand that, we need to look in to their Prayers. What are they praying? How are they praying? When we look in to their prayers, we understand the contrast. One man came with a sense of arrogant self confidence, and other in humility. I would like to share some of my observations.
1. The wrong way to approach God is by your own good works. The Pharisee represents all who try to come to God on the basis of their own good deeds. Keep in mind that in our day, the word Pharisee has a negative connotation, but in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were those who had devoted themselves to God. They were diligent to keep the Law of Moses. They were the religious leaders of the day. But Jesus uses this Pharisee as an example of those who try to come to God through their good works. He shows four problems with this approach to God.
a) People who try to come to God by their good works are trusting in themselves.
Luke states this plainly in the text to trust in ourselves is to distrust in God; the two are mutually exclusive. A person may protest, “I am trusting in both God and myself,” but the truth is, he is trusting in himself not in God. John Calvin draws the line this way: “Every man that is puffed up with self-confidence carries on an open war with God, to whom we cannot be reconciled in any other way than by denial of ourselves; that is, by laying aside all confidence in our own virtue and righteousness, and relying on his mercy alone” Scripture declares that we are saved by grace through faith apart from works (Eph. 2:8-9), because if we add just a small amount of human works to what God has done, we will boast in our works and diminish from the finished work of Christ. To try to come to God by our good works is to trust in ourselves, even if those works are mingled with faith. Look at the Pharisee, he stood and proudly announced to God the kind of person he was. He felt that he could be bold because he had earned that position. He had worked hard to get a hearing with God. Look at what he is praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, robbers, evil doors, adulterers or even like this tax collector”. His giving thanks to God was a mere formality. Look, he says, he has fasted twice a week and gives a tenth of all what he gets. His prayer was simply a record of all his activities in a glorifying manner. Jesus says that he “was praying thus to himself,” meaning that he was praying so as to be heard only by himself. Yes in fact, he was praying to himself, not to God! His prayer mentions God once, but “I” five times! “It was less a prayer in which he gave thanks to God, than a congratulation which he addressed to himself.” The Pharisee must have gone to temple to pray because it was a public place, and therefore he would have many eyes on him and he came there in search of a compliment. He was heading down the wrong road. It would not get him into heaven, because he was trusting in his own goodness, which cannot save anyone.
b) People who try to come to God by their good works are looking down on others.
Luke also states plainly in the text invariably; the person who trusts in his own righteousness looks down on others who have not achieved his level of holiness. He may show his pride in religious language, as this man does: “I thank You that I am not like other people oh God”, but he is still boasting in himself as being fundamentally different than these sinners that he mentions. Pride is a sin, being the original sin of Satan and of the human race, who thought that they knew better than God. Every sin we commit is rooted in self-exaltation or pride. If you think that you are somehow better than others, you are probably trusting in your own good works, not in the grace of God.
c) People who try to come to God by their own good works are comparing themselves to others, not to God.
The reason this Pharisee thought that he was so good was that he was comparing himself with crooks, greedy and immoral people. We all can find those who outwardly more wicked than we are and congratulate ourselves on our own holiness. But, if we looked the other way, we also could find many people who are far better than we are, people who have given their very lives for others. But those who try to come to God by their good works are comparing themselves to others and not to God. So it is useless to compare ourselves with one another. God’s perfect righteousness is the only standard we can compare ourselves to. When we start comparing ourselves with others, we will surely fail in life and most importantly in our Christian walk.
d) People who try to come to God by their own good works are looking at things outwardly, not at their hearts before God.
The Pharisee was thinking of all of his good deeds, the fasting and the giving, and probably a whole lot more things he had done. But he was not looking at his heart, which was filled with pride. God looks at the heart. Outwardly, we can smile and be friendly toward someone, while our heart hates him and is plotting revenge. Outwardly, we can give a lot of money on charity and people would say, “What a generous man!” But God is looking at the motives of our heart. Did we give it to please God or to receive the applause of men? God looks at our heart. No one who honestly examines his heart before God can hope to come before God on the basis of his good works. We may clean up our outward behavior, but we cannot clean up our hearts on our own. Only God can do that through His power. That leads to the second lesson here, exemplified in the tax collector.
2. The right way to approach God is “as an unworthy sinner pleading for mercy”. If you exalt yourself by presenting your good works to God, you will be humbled on judgment day; but if you humble yourself now before God and plead for His mercy, you will be exalted in to His presence on that day. So, how to approach God? As an unworthy sinner: When we have a close study of this tax collector, we understand he also came to the temple to pray. Perhaps a place he had not visited very often. Why did he come to the temple, we do not know but he came. The tax collector would not even come as far into the temple as the proud Pharisee did. He stood at some distance, and was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven. He hit his chest, showing his true sorrow for what he had done. Look at him in contrast to the Pharisee; he was under conviction for the wrongs he had done. He could not even look up and had nothing with which to commend himself before the Lord. He did not plead with God on the basis of his repentance. He did not plead that he had now changed his life by turning as a new person. He did not promise that things would be different in the future. He simply came to God as he was, an unworthy sinner, with no basis or merit in himself for laying hold of God. He asked God for mercy. He stood at a distance under a sense of his unworthiness before the Lord, as a sign of sorrow and repentance. He did not argue that he deserve better. He knew his only hope is God’s mercy. So he threw himself on God’s mercy as he prayed.
That is the only way; any of us can come to God, because that is what we all are—unworthy sinners who deserve His judgment. Come honestly and say, “God, I am a sinner who deserves nothing but your judgment.” The more you grow as a Christian, the more God will show you the utter sinfulness of your own heart. Charles Simeon observes, “Never are you higher in God’s esteem than when you are lowest in your own” So we can approach God by pleading for His mercy: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Note that the tax collector approached God Himself directly, not through a priest. That is how we all must come. God is the one to whom you have sinned against; go directly to Him with your confession. Note also that the man approached God personally. “Be merciful to me.” He does not associate himself with others to say: “We all have done wrong.” He did not assume that he would get into heaven on the group plan, because he was a Jew or because his parents had been faithful synagogue members. He was dealing with God on a personal basis. That is the only way into heaven. You must come to God personally, just you and God. Also, note that the tax collector approached God asking for mercy, not for rewards based on his merits. He did not say, “Be merciful to me because I was humble enough to come and confess my sins.” He did not say, “Be merciful to me and I will work hard to pay you back.” He just said, “Be merciful to me, the sinner.”
3. When sinners approach God for mercy, He graciously, instantly justifies them.
Jesus emphatically states, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other” (18:14). To justify means that God forgives the sins at His judgment and declares, “Not guilty!” Not only does He remove the guilt of our sins, He also credits to our account the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, the substitute who suffered the penalty of God’s wrath. This man walked into the temple as a guilty, wicked and corrupt tax collector, who ripped off people because of his own greed. He walked out of the temple righteous before God. How could this be? The answer is, he received a righteousness not of his own, but credited to him through grace. Yes, it was credited to him by God’s grace through faith. It did not take years of personal suffering, confession and restoration in his life to secure this righteous standing for this man. No, he went down to his house justified. God graciously, instantly granted it. The great news is that when a sinner comes to God as a sinner asking for mercy, God graciously, instantly justifies him.
You might be thinking you are a good person, a faithful churchgoer and a decent citizen of the community you belong. But God knows the many sins of your heart. All the good deeds in the world cannot pay for the many times you have broken His holy law. If you come into God’s court on judgment day and present your good works, you will be condemned. But if you come as an unworthy sinner who has pleaded for mercy on the basis of Jesus Christ who shed His blood to pay the penalty you deserve, God will declare you, “Not guilty!” Make sure first you understand that and apply this personally; then, share with others the right way to come to God. Looking at this two people and their prayers in this parable we can learn few principles.
1) Salvation is a gift from God and not something we earn: Salvation is not something we earn by our works but by grace we receive it as an undeserved gift. We are made right with God because of what Jesus did for us on the cross of Calvary. His blood was shed for our sin. We become right with God when we receive this offer of salvation that is provided by our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
2) An awareness of our sin and our need for salvation is the first step to heaven: The track record of the tax collector was much worse than that of the Pharisee, but the tax collector saw his need and the Pharisee did not. The tax collector came to God but the Pharisee felt he was doing fine by himself and he deserves it. We must measure ourselves by God’s standards not by comparing ourselves with those around us or by how well we do good works.
3) God looks at our attitude and our motive: God looks at the heart. He looks at whether or not we honor Him with everything we do. God not only sees the times when we are trying to honor Him but also looks at the times when we do not give Him a thought. He sees even the slightest manipulation, the games we play against others and those times when our goodness and kindness are a disguise for our wicked heart.
4) God does not look at a person’s record but at the heart. It is good to know God does not just dismiss us because we have made mistakes in the past, He does not write us off because of the people we have hurt. He does not write of the tax collector, drug dealer or the abuser. He does not give up on the Pharisee either.
What God is waiting for is that we turn to Him and trust Him with our lives. He is waiting for us to stop hiding our sin and to confess it to Him. He is waiting for us to stop our self righteous attitudes and to come to Him sincerely seeking His mercy. And when we do that God will justify us, that like He did with the Tax collector. The Lord concludes the parable with this good advice, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.