Topical Scripture: Luke 18:8-14
A young Scottish preacher came to preach his first sermon in his new church. The pulpits in Scottish churches are sometimes raised high above the congregation, so that the preacher must climb up several steps to preach. This young man had just graduated from seminary and was extremely sure of himself. Bible under his arm, head held high, he climbed the steps to the pulpit, confident that his message would impress his hearers with his eloquence and learning.
But once he began, his thoughts eluded him. He fumbled and stumbled about, dropping his notes and retrieving them. Nothing went right. Finally, he finished and descended the steps, his head downcast. A dear lady sitting right by the pulpit tugged on his robe and said, “Young man, if you’d gone up like you came down, you’d have come down like you went up.”
Reading the day’s news provides a constant opportunity for spiritual superiority. When we read that Hallmark is planning LGBTQ-themed movies, we shake our heads. When we hear of a town in Massachusetts that legalized polyamorous families (three or more “partners” in the relationship), we cringe. I could go on.
In a summer series on “hope in hard places,” here’s the point of this week’s message: there is great power in true humility.
Avoid the pride of religious achievement
Jesus’ parable stars two of the most common figures of his day, at polar opposites on the social scale. He could not possibly have picked more diverse characters for the drama he describes.
First enters the Pharisee.
There were never more than six thousand of these men, widely considered the holiest people in the nation. They were important to Jesus’ time and spiritual culture, as attested by the hundred or so references to “Pharisee” in the New Testament.
Separated for God
Their name derives from the Hebrew root prs, which means to “separate” or “detach.” Some think that their movement began as a separation which occurred in the Second Temple period, when they chose not to support the Hasmonean dynasty then in power (134–104 BC). But most think that they “separated” from ritual uncleanness and the impurities of everyday Jewish life.
Two commitments characterized their movement.
First, they were devoted to the oral tradition handed down from earlier teachers. This “Halakah” was believed to originate with Moses and was given authority on the same level as the written laws of the Pentateuch. Their interest centered more in personal piety than political advancement, placing them in frequent opposition to the Sadducees and their support of Rome.
Second, theirs was a passionate devotion to personal piety and holiness. They voluntarily accepted very strict laws regarding standards of personal purity. The Pharisees fasted regularly (Matthew 6:16; Luke 18:12). They sought proselytes to the faith (Matthew 23:15). They prayed frequently (Matthew 6:5). They tithed their goods and means (Luke 11:42; 18:12). They were zealous in their pursuit of a purified Jewish faith (cf. Galatians 1:14).
Confusing religion with relationship
Unfortunately, some of the Pharisees were hypocritical in this pursuit, observing the letter of the law but missing its essence.
Jesus’ parable was addressed to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). In seeking a character to personify this problem, he did not have to look far. It was common for the Pharisees to go “up into the temple to pray” (v. 10), climbing its steps to participate in one of the several prayer meetings held there daily.
The Jews typically began their prayers with words of thanksgiving. We can picture this Pharisee standing erect, his arms spread wide, his proud words echoing in the Temple walls for all to hear. Perhaps Jesus heard a Pharisee utter the very oration he now quotes: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (v. 11).
Our Pharisee is not an “extortioner” (a swindler or cheat), an “unjust” person (someone who is unrighteous in his dealings with others), or an “adulterer.” He is superior to “other men,” and especially “this tax collector.”
As further proof, he states, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get” (v. 12). The Jews were commanded to fast only on the Day of Atonement, but many of the Pharisees also fasted on Monday and Thursday (Matthew 5:20; 6:16; 9:14; Mark 2:18; Acts 27:9). It has been noted that these were market days, when more people would see their public religious devotion. He also “gives tithes of all I get,” tithing from his entire possessions, not just his financial income, and on the gross rather than the net.
It is altogether likely that the Pharisee in our parable spoke the truth as he saw it. He probably was as externally moral and religious as he claimed to be. His culture certainly held him in reverence as one of the “holy men” of the day, the spiritual Marine Corp of the nation.
The tragedy of his soul was that he confused religion with relationship. He thought that his activity would impress God as much as it impressed his society. He believed that he had earned an audience with the Holy One by his religious zeal. Surely if anyone merited divine favor, it was this spiritual superstar.
This attitude did not end with this Pharisee.
It is still tempting to believe that we are what we do and that our status with God is determined by our status with each other. We can easily believe that we merit God’s favor by our religious achievements, that our relationship with the Father is based on our religious activity. But Jesus made clear that the Pharisee did not go home “justified” for this simple reason: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke 18:14).
Pray in the humility of spiritual relationship
Now our other character enters the stage, a “tax collector.” He was as infamous to Jesus’ audience as the Pharisee was famous. The Romans established throughout their Empire a system of taxes and levies which they imposed on their subjects with impunity. Their motive was twofold: to secure financial resources for their ever-growing military complex, but also to keep the people in subjugation to their power.
In a region as far from Rome as Israel, it would be impossible for the Empire to enforce their taxation laws without local help. So, the Romans arranged for a network of tax-farmers, the publicani, who were responsible to pay the Empire what it required (Zacchaeus was likely a member of this group). These publicani in turn auditioned large numbers from the local populace and selected those who promised to pay them the largest sums. (Matthew was a well-known member of this group in Capernaum.)
So long as these tax-collectors kept their promise to the publicani, they could collect anything else they wished. The general public had no court of appeal and could refuse the tax-collector only at risk of Roman wrath.
In addition to the financial burdens the tax-collectors placed on their neighbors, their activity supported the hated Roman occupation force. If Jews in Poland were to collect taxes from their fellow Jews to pay the Nazis, their activity would be similar to the tax-collectors of Jesus’ day. These men were known to be unscrupulous embezzlers, immoral in the extreme. And their frequent dealings with Gentiles made them religiously unclean as well.
As a result, tax-collectors are often linked with “sinners” in the Gospels (cf. Mark 2:15). Matthew associates them with “prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31) and Gentiles (Matthew 18:17). Jesus could have introduced no figure to his story who would be more hated than the tax collector.
The man’s prayer is no surprise to Jesus’ audience: “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!'” (Luke 18:13). His distance from the Pharisee in the Temple bespoke his low status in the community. His breast-beating was a typical sign of repentance. His prayer in the Greek pleaded with the Lord to “have mercy on me, the sinner” (emphasis added), exactly what Jesus’ contemporaries believed the man should ask from God. He prays for mercy (sometimes defined as not getting what we deserve) rather than for grace (getting what we do not deserve). If any needed such mercy, it was this man.
Now comes the shock: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (v. 14). If Billy Graham and a neighborhood drug dealer had been praying in the same church, and the drug pusher was accepted by God while the evangelist was rejected, we’d be no less surprised. When I once used this analogy in explaining Jesus’ parable to a congregation, a member of the church wrote me that week in shock that I would suggest such an outcome. I assured him that he understood Jesus’ point exactly.
Those in Jesus’ audience were confident that they were “righteous” (v. 9), a word which means to be in covenant relationship with God. In fact, the man who was “justified” (declared innocent and right with the Lord) was precisely confident that he possessed no such claim (v. 14).
Note that “righteousness” and “justified” come from the same Greek root. Only when we admit that we are not righteous in ourselves can we be made so and justified by God. Only when we know our need of God can we know God (cf. Matthew 5:3). He can only give what we will receive. And we can receive his grace only when we admit that we need it. Thus, “everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
So, what is the point of Jesus’ parable for us? Simply this question: do we come to God like the Pharisee or like the publican?
Despite our possessions or reputation or status, before God we are all sinners. Every one of us has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23), and the payment for that sin is death (Romans 6:23). It is only by God’s grace that we can stand in his presence at all.
Do we admit that fact?
Do we receive others as God receives us? Is our church a haven for saints or a hospital for sinners? Are we a club where all must belong, or a family where all can? What if our church were a congregation where outcasts were welcome? Where the worst sinners could come?
The fact is, that’s us. Every one of us.
If we want to experience the power of God for our problems, his hope in hard times, we must come to him on our knees. If we will not admit that we are publicans rather than Pharisees, we cannot experience what the publican received. If we will admit to our Father how much we need his help and hope, we will have them.
The oldest Christian church building in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Built in the fourth century, it was partially reconstructed in the sixth century and has been venerated ever since. In a crypt below is the traditional manger where Jesus was born. I’ve been inside this church many times and can attest to the power of the experience.
The entrance is part of the story of the building. It once was high and wide, but during the medieval era, Muslim Turks sometimes rode in on horseback to assault Christian worshipers. And so, it was remade as a very small doorway, four feet wide by just three or four feet high. I had to stoop down to enter. It is called the Door of Humility. It is a concrete parable of the Christian life.
Will you make that door your entrance to God today?