Summary: This story is about what we think makes us acceptable in the sight of God.
A Study of the Book of Luke
Sermon # 49
“Good News for Bad People”
In verse nine Jesus begins another parable.
Because this parable follows the parable of the persistent widow, where Jesus teaches us to be persistent in our prayers we are tempted to see this parable as also applying to prayer. And on the surface this story does have to do with prayer, the two characters of the parable are praying. But in reality this story is about what we think makes us acceptable in the sight of God.
If we stop to realize it the two prayers of the two men in this parable embody two contrasting views of how to approach God; one on the basis of supposed good works and the other on the basis of God’s grace.
“Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: (10) “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. (11) The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. (12) I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ (13) And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to mea sinner!” (14) “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I know that intent of this parable is not to show us how to pray because after telling this parable Jesus did not say, “I tell you this man had his prayer answered.” He said rather, “… this man went down to his house justified” (v. 14). So Jesus reveals that the parable’s purpose is to answer the question, “How can a person be justified before God?”
In fact Jesus states his purpose for sharing this parable in verse nine was to enlighten a very specific group of people, those who were “confident of their own righteousness.” The Greek word used to describe these individuals (pepoithotas) depicts them as having a confidence “based on themselves that they were righteous.”
In other words, Jesus was speaking to those who trusted in their own goodness. These were those who believed that they were good people and therefore right with God and on their way to heaven. It is the same today. It seems that most people in America consider themselves decent people. But that does not make them right with God!
In this parable Jesus used two people to contrast each other and make a point. You could not have come up with two people who were seen more differently by society than they were. The Pharisee to his society represents the “good guy,” while the tax collector represented the height of wickedness.
We are accustomed today to having a negative view of the Pharisees, but in Jesus’ day it was the opposite. The Pharisee where in that time well respected and honored members of their community. There was no doubt in any ones mind that the tax collector was the bad guy in this story. Tax collectors were the scum of Jewish society. He was the money grubbing, cheating, Roman collaborator. Perhaps in today’s culture the closest social equivalent would be a drug pusher or a pimp or an American fighting with the Taliban. People would literally cross to the other side of the street when they saw him coming.
Through the characters in the parable we learn two things about developing a relationship with God.
First, The Good News for Bad People is that God will never welcome those who trust in their own goodness.
The Pharisee is an example of how man cannot come to God. We are told in verse eleven, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.” This Pharisee represents the individual who is comfortable in a religious setting. The Pharisee stands while he is praying. This was a typical posture for prayer. Standing, with head looking toward heaven and arms outstretched. It was not uncommon to pray aloud that others could here what he was praying, but the words attributed to the Pharisee in verse eleven, are not so much what he may have said but what he thought. ‘…. God I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.”
The text says, He “prayed thus with himself,” some translations say, “prayed to himself.” In fact if you look at verses 11-12, there are five personal pronouns used in this prayer, He says “I, I, I, I, I.”