Today we are looking at the famous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It’s a simple, straightforward story that is easy to understand. It’s dramatic and predictable. You don’t need to be a Bible expert to see the moral. But that’s exactly why we need to slow down and be careful, because we may be assuming too much.
Pharisees have become known as the bad guys in the Bible, so it is easy to jump to the conclusion that whatever the Pharisee is like he is an example to avoid. We should be the opposite. If he is arrogant, we should be humble.
There is a trap here, though. It is far too easy to think we aren’t like that Pharisee. We are in danger of saying in effect, Thank you Lord that I’m not a hypocrite, too pious, self-righteous. I attend church every week and know that I should always be humble like the tax collector.
Oops, you’ve just done what the parable condemns. As soon as you draw a line, you have put yourself on the wrong side of the line.
The Pharisee is actually a great man of faith. He is to be admired and copied in many ways. He is not a bad guy, but a righteous man. He meets the standards. His problem is that he doesn’t see the real reason for his righteousness. He has been blessed by God, but he is trusting in himself.
As he prays we can see that he thinks he is righteous because of what he does and how he lives. He is praying in gratitude to God, but his words are also praising himself for not being like the other guys. The Pharisee says, “I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.”
Jesus says “The Pharisee stood by himself”, and so we can see how he sets himself apart as better than others. And when he gives thanks to God for being so righteous, it is to praise himself. The Pharisee actually trusts in himself and in his own goodness. The tax collector doesn’t trust in himself at all. He asks God to help him because he is a sinner.
He is not so different from the Pharisee. They have both gone to the synagogue to pray. They are both standing with hands held up to God, as is the custom in prayer. They are both believers and faithful Jews, but only one trusts God. And that man is the one who ends up as righteous, because it is God who justifies us.
When we read the words of Jesus in the New Testament we have to take steps to understand his message and not jump to conclusions. Here are three questions from John Piper you can ask about a passage when you read it. Answering these questions will help focus on the point of the story or the teaching. We are looking at words spoken by Jesus. Let’s ask ourselves.
1) What difference does it make that the words were spoken by Jesus, the Messiah, the eternal, sinless son of God?
2) What difference does it make that Jesus was born to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), and as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many (Matthew 26:28)?
3) What difference does it make that Jesus thinks we are all spiritually dead (Luke 9:60) and need to be born again (John 3:3)? That we all are so rebellious in our hearts that we cannot come to Jesus unless the Father leads us to him (John 6:65; Matthew 16:17)?
If we don’t ask these questions, Jesus’ commandments are likely to be misused.
Luke opens his Gospel by reminding us in 2:10 that Jesus is the Messiah. John said Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Mark spends most of his Gospel writing about the last week of Jesus’ life.
Matthew starts his Gospel in 1:21 by telling us who Jesus is: “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In other words, all the Gospels want us to know from the very beginning how the story ends. It ends with Jesus dying as a Lamb for the forgiveness of sins and rising again as the Lord of the universe. That is the way to understand every paragraph in the Gospels. Jesus’ commandments are not mere snippets of wisdom for how to raise your family, or how to prosper in business, or how to feel good about yourself. They are descriptions of how new human beings live who have been born again by God’s Spirit.
Let’s try to remember that as we read. Going back to today’s passage, in verse 9 we find that “Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else.”
They knew about God. They knew about grace. They knew about righteousness. But they missed the key point.
They don’t know that everything written about God in the Old Testament was pointing to Jesus, the Messiah who takes away the sins of the world. That man is speaking to them at that moment. He is telling them how to be saved. He is teaching them how to be justified. That is the word Jesus uses in verse 14 – “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.”
This is not a story ‘about’ people who trusted in themselves. It may seem a small point, but Jesus is talking directly ‘to’ people “who had great confidence in their own righteousness”. He is looking them in the eye and telling them they need to be saved.
The point here for us is, don’t talk about people. Talk to people. Talk to them directly and lovingly about their need for the Messiah. Don’t tell other people how bad they are and how much they need the Messiah, because that isn’t what Jesus did.
When Jesus spoke to them he didn’t accuse them directly, but preferred to tell them stories. Maybe that his how we should be also. Don’t accuse. Don’t judge.
What is the Pharisee’s problem as Jesus tells the story?
He was a righteous man. He was a morally upright man. He kept the commandments (like the rich young ruler, ten verses later, in Luke 18:21).
He was ceremonially righteous. In verse 12 he said, “I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” These relate to spiritual disciplines before God, and not so much to how you treat other people. This too was part of his righteousness. He was a morally upright and religiously devout man. He even thanked God for his righteousness.
The problem is not whether the man himself has produced the righteousness he has or whether God has produced it. Jesus says the Pharisee’s problem is that he trusts in it.
He is not presented as a legalist who tries to earn his salvation. That is not the issue.
So what is the issue? And what does it mean for us today?
Are you looking away from yourself? Are you looking toward Jesus? One day you find yourself standing before the holy Judge. You know that you must be found righteous in this all-knowing, infinitely-just court. What are you going to look to and trust in?
You cannot trust in your own righteousness, however great it is. You cannot even trust in all the great and wonderful things that God has done in your life. You cannot list how many souls you have brought to Jesus for salvation. You cannot list how many churches you have planted or how many prayer meetings you have attended. You cannot remind God how many people have been healed by your prayers or how many conferences you have led.
Jesus wants you to know this morning that for your justification you cannot look at or trust in what God has worked in you. Look at and trust in Christ alone. You are saved by your relationship with Jesus. The Pharisee didn’t do this.
What did the tax collector do? He looked away from himself to God. He trusted in nothing in himself. He trusted completely in God.
Look to Christ alone, trust in Christ alone. Your righteousness is like a dirty rag. Do you know and love Jesus? He is your only saviour.