Text: Luke 18:9-14
Two men enter, and two men leave. Two men go up to the temple to pray, and both go down again. Two men go in, but only one returns justified. One man was a Pharisee and the other, a tax collector. Yet, the one who went down justified was not the one people would’ve expected. Our text today from St. Luke’s Gospel often gets combined with another occasion where Jesus talks about Pharisees and prayer. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus uses the word “hypocrites” there, but it’s clear that He’s talking about the Pharisees, who habitually put on shows of piety for others to see.
Passages about the Pharisees often get combined, and most of the time when they come up, the sermon becomes an opportunity to encourage humility and tolerance. For, every knows how judgmental those evil Pharisees were; and, of course, we are better than they are. Or, if you like – take out Pharisee and put in whatever other people you want. Although we could preach a sermon on humility from this text, I’m not convinced that’s the main point. St. Luke gives us why Jesus preached this parable in verse 9, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”
This parable is a little more sophisticated than it appears at first. It actually cuts right to the core of the Christian faith and the thing that separates the true faith from all the other falsehoods out there. The core of the Christian faith and what separates us from all other religions is how we are justified, how we are made righteous – how we are saved. Two men go into the temple to pray, one leaves justified. One man offers an eloquent prayer, which is to be commended, but his prayer revealed where his confidence ultimately lied: in himself. So, he left without his sins forgiven. The other, as we will see, returned to his home forgiven. Jesus demonstrates in our text that the ones who are truly justified – who are made righteous and whose sins are forgiven – are those who trust not in themselves, but only in God’s abundant mercy.
Our text begins, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’” In Luke 18, things are starting the ratchet up a little bit. If your remember last week, our text was Luke 19, which was just after Triumphal Entry. Jesus is teaching in this chapter in view of His upcoming passion. The things that He talks about have His suffering and death as their central point. Soon after our text comes Jesus’ third prediction of His death, which will accomplish all that was written in the prophets; He will win salvation for the world by His death and resurrection. His suffering is what makes peace between God and the world and is the reason for our justification.
In order to teach this, Jesus uses a parable. He sets up a contrast that would be startlingly real to the audience. In one corner, a Pharisee, and in the other, a tax collector. It’s important to remember that, contrary to how we perceive Pharisees now, they weren’t the bad guys. Well, they were for their evil doctrine; but think of the Pharisees as the people in church that everyone likes. They are the most religious, most giving, most well-liked people in the congregation. They were whom everyone looked up to. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the bad guy. Yeah, they were Jews. But they were greedy swindlers, who worked for the Roman occupiers. They paid a great sum of money be tax collectors, only so they could extort more money out of their fellow man. And yeah, they probably went to church, but they maybe weren’t the most well-liked.
Both men go up to the temple to pray. “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” The Pharisee goes up to the temple for the time of corporate worship with all the other people, but he situates himself so that he is set apart from the others. To some extent, this was the Pharisees’ M.O.; to them you were either pure or not. Salvation for them was measured by how pure you were. Included among those who were not pure, were some who were fellow churchgoers. So, he separated himself from the crowd, because if he got too close, then he would also be impure, and then also so he could be seen by the others.
He offered this prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” Now, in some ways, the prayer itself is not so bad. It is good to thank God that He has preserved us from falling into great shame and vice. If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, we would be much worse off. It’s okay to recognize that. But that’s not what the Pharisee did. Remember why Jesus is telling this parable. The Pharisee was saying that he was better than all other men. All the others are unrighteous robbers and adulterers, but not him. He concluded that, because he does not do any of those things, he must be righteous. Then he justified himself by saying, in addition, he also fasted not once but twice a week and tithed not just what he earned, but also what he bought.
Jesus spoke this parable against those who were confident that they were righteous in and of themselves. They were the ones who counted their works, and based their hope of salvation on them. The Pharisee wasn’t really thanking God, but he was advertising and celebrating himself. He didn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, because he knew how good he was. His posture and prayer revealed what was inside his heart: neither repentance over sin nor faith in Christ, only his own goodness. Therefore, Jesus said, the Pharisee was not the one who went down from the temple justified. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the others, the unrighteous. But now he is the “other,” the one whose sins were not forgiven. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
“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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” As the Pharisee stood in front of the congregation congratulating himself, the tax collector stood at a distance. All men are liars, cheaters, adulterers, and thieves – in other words, poor miserable sinners – a fact the tax collector freely acknowledged. Convicted by God’s Word and ashamed of his sin, the man would not even look up to heaven. Instead, he beat his chest. This act of contrition was common in times of great sorrow, but even then usually only among women. For a man to do it…
He offered up a simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Hidden in those words is a profound theological statement that we miss in English.The word for mercy in Greek is ἔλεος , which is where we get Kyrie Eleison from. That isn’t the word the tax collector uses. He uses the word ἱλάσθητί, which relates to another word, ἱλαστήριον. The ἱλαστήριον is the part on the ark of the covenant that would be covered by blood of a sacrifice. Once a year, one priest would go furthest into the temple, into the holy of holies. There he would present a sacrifice and sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat of God. That blood would cover the sins of the people.
When the tax collector came to the temple and offered that simple prayer, what he was asking was that the blood that was shed for the forgiveness of sins would be for his sins also. His sins were great and many, there was no righteousness in him. But God is righteous and merciful and provides His own payment for sin. The author to the Hebrews writes, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…[therefore, Christ] by a single offering [he] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” When the tax collector begged that God would have mercy on him, he asked that God would make atonement for his sins and wash them away with blood. And, so has God done through the blood of Christ.
Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Those who are truly justified, made righteous, are those who trust not in themselves, but wholly in God’s abundant mercy. The Pharisee prided himself in his goodness. Though it is good to tithe and do other good works, it is wrong to place your confidence in them and measure your salvation against them. Or, insert good intentions, good morals, church attendance, or whatever else you want into that sentence. The Pharisee is anyone who places his hope of salvation and confidence anywhere other than God’s mercy. The tax collector went away justified, forgiven his sins, because he trusted not in himself but in God’s great compassion. Does that mean the tax collector got a free pass to continue on sinning? No, for being forgiven our sins leads us to show that same compassion to others. But, that is the point. We are not saved by who we are, by our works, or by anything else we do. We are saved because God has had mercy on us. He has made atonement for our sins not by the blood of bulls and goats, but by the blood of the only-begotten Son of God.