Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
In Part 1, I was asking the question, How real are you? Are you into pretending? And I said that Jesus was actually telling stories about people. Wherever Jesus went, he was surrounded by crowds. These crowds were made up of all kinds of people, from the spiritually dead to the spiritual snobs.
A Parable for the Snobs
The story that we find in Luke 18:9-14—the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We are told that this particular parable is for the snobs. Look at verse 9: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:”
The phrase “looked down on” can be translated to utterly despise. I love the way The Message version paraphrases this verse, “To some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people:” Ouch! These spiritually superior super-saints were about to learn a lesson about what is most important in the kingdom of God.
A Good Guy and a Bad Guy
Jesus begins the story by setting the stage: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10) There are two characters in the story: a Pharisee and a tax collector. His listeners would have automatically understood that this was a story about a good guy and a bad guy. The only problem with Jesus is you never know which one is which.
First, we see a Pharisee going up to Jerusalem to pray. This is not out of the ordinary. Pharisees were good at praying. The word Pharisee literally means ‘separated one’ and they were members of a strict sect that gained prominence in the century before Christ was born. This man was probably the head of the synagogue and a member of the city council. He knew the Scriptures, much of it by heart. He knew all the rules and was a stickler for form and tradition. He was a good guy, well respected in the community. He wore a white hat. Parents wanted their children to grow up to be Pharisees.
The second man seems out of place. A tax collector going to the Temple to pray would be highly unusual. He is the ‘bad guy’ of the story. He had sold his soul to Rome for a cheap buck. The Romans occupied Israel at this time and were hated. This guy not only worked for the enemy, but skimmed money off the top and got rich off his own countrymen. He was not even allowed in the synagogue, could not hold public office, and couldn’t testify in court. You didn’t want your babies to grow up to be tax collectors.
Two Kinds of Prayer
Next, Jesus tells us what they prayed: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: God,I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)
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You can learn a lot about someone by listening to their prayers. The Pharisee was a professional. He walked to the centre of the inner court, ruffled his prayer shawl, cleared his throat, struck a pose and prayed. His prayer contained 33 words (round-about, depending on translation) and five of those were the word I—it’s saying It’s all about me.
As I said before, the tax collector’s presence in the Temple is a bit awkward: “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.” (Luke 18:13)
The tax collector knew better than to go into the inner court, so we find him standing at a distance, probably somewhere in the outer court. No flowing robes, no fancy words. In fact, just seven words: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No comparisons—who could he compare himself to anyway? No list of ‘good deeds’. It was just a humble plea for pardon. He asked, while beating his chest, for mercy, undeserved favour. While our hearts may go out to this poor guy, to Jesus first-century audience this guy was going to get just what he deserved—judgment!
A Terrible Twist
Everyone had the story figured out—or so they thought. Jesus finished the story by telling them who was actually justified, made right before God. He said,”The tax man went home right with God” and every jaw in the crowd dropped. Can’t you hear the gasps? The whispers? Tax collectors are bad guys. God doesn’t listen to them! Who does this guy think he is?
Jesus,anticipating their response,drops this bombshell on them: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14). Again, we see the upside-down theology of Jesus. Many in the crowd walked away mumbling, What was that all about?
Relationship vs Religion
I do not believe it is matter of ‘good and bad’. The point is that the Pharisee wasn’t real. He was plastic, superficial, a poser. The tax collector brought to God his real self, warts and all. When it comes to God, he demands reality. It was all about relationship vs religion.
The Pharisee was religious. Most people, including many in Jesus’ audience, thought that was a good thing. The only problem was that some of Jesus’ most stinging criticism was directed at the religious people. In just one section of Scripture in Mathew, Jesus called the Pharisees ‘hypocrites’ (Matthew 23:23); ‘blind guides’ (Matthew 23:16); ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matthew 23:27); and ‘snakes, brood of vipers’ (Matthew 23:33).
These are strong words—Jesus did not mince words when it came to religion! The Pharisees had substituted following rules for falling in love with God. Religion seeks to reduce God to a formula. If you jump through the right hoops then you win brownie points with God. Isaiah wrote: “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. (Isaiah 29:13)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith (Ephesians 2:8)
The Pharisee’s prayer consisted of two very religious practices: comparison and conceit. He thanked God that he was not like other men, especially not like the ‘scum bag’ tax collector. Religious people are good at comparing themselves to others. Whereas the tax collector’s prayer was based on grace.
God called the Pharisee and the tax collector to a relationship with him based on grace. The Apostle Paul puts it plainly: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Relationship is spelled ‘done’. You do not have to earn God’s love. Both of these men in the Temple had the opportunity to approach the God of the universe. Unfortunately, the Pharisee found that religion was easier.
How about you? Are you trusting in rules or understanding that a relationship with Christ is what matters?