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the Pharisee and Tax Collector


Sermon shared by Robert Leroe

March 2010
Summary: The true “righteous” person is not someone who flawlessly observes all the “rules”, but someone who begs for mercy and is accepted by God--despite having plenty of human imperfections. To illustrate this, Jesus tells a story of two people who are polar o
Denomination: Congregational
Audience: General adults
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” The problem is--no one can ever be “good enough.” The Bible portrays God as the compassionate Lover of our souls, who reaches out to broken people to gather us in. “Sin for Jesus is not primarily a broken law but a broken relationship” (Bailey). Sin separates us from God. Jesus came to restore that relationship. We will never be free until we get rid of the whole business of justifying ourselves.

Praying is important, but equally so the attitude we bring to prayer. The Pharisee sounds like God should be honored to hear from him! He doesn’t hesitate to brag about his virtues. Confidence is important, but we need to guard against arrogance and pride. Our confidence is in God, not self. Yet anyone who might have walked into the Temple and heard this prayer would not be offended; this was a normal prayer for a Pharisee…but “if you’re intent on offending God, then pray like this!” (Kendall)

The biggest mistake of the Pharisee is in thinking that he can put himself right with God. His score card was good enough to give him a false sense of security, and he takes all the credit. Even we would be impressed with him. Most churches would gladly accept his pledge card and welcome him into their midst.

The Pharisee talks as if he were the noblest person around…while the tax collector (called a “publican” in some translations) prays as if there’s no sinner on earth as vile as he. A big difference in self-perception! The tax collector comes before God with empty hands. Outwardly worse than the Pharisee, he keeps his distance, feeling unworthy to pray near such a respected, holy person. He has nothing to brag about, nothing to offer but his sin. He knows that he has little evidence to present to argue his cause, and so he confesses his sin and begs for “mercy,” the only thing he dares to ask for.

Mercy is God’s goodness toward those in the misery of sin; mercy is granted by withholding deserved judgment. However, this word “mercy” isn’t the word normally used in Scripture, but instead the word used that means to “make atonement.” The tax collector is asking God to cover his sins, to blot them out. Atonement is the removal of guilt by sacrifice--a price paid. Praying in the Temple, the tax collector is saying, in effect, “Let the sacrifice taking place be for me.” The blood of Christ, shed in our behalf, covers our guilt and causes us to be acceptable by the Father. This humble prayer opens wide the doors of Heaven.

The tax collector prays, and waits…and Jesus says he left the Temple “justified”, a word that means he is cleansed of sin and declared righteous. We are justified by faith, resulting in the record of our sins being wiped clean by the blood of Christ--a free gift. Both people in this parable are sinners in need of grace, but only the tax collector has the humility to recognize the truth about himself. The Pharisee returns home no different than when he entered the Temple…while the tax collector returns home a different man.

We are made/declared righteous by God’s work, not ours. Our work is to believe and accept Christ’s payment for our sin. We receive mercy, we don’t earn it. We’ll never be good enough
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