Are You Justified?
Last week I posted some notes from a sermon I was preparing to preach. I thought it was a fun exercise, and it seemed to be well received, so I will replicate that now with my preaching notes from a sermon on Luke 18:9-14.
Intro to Parables
•Before we dive into the text, we need to lay some groundwork. This is a parable—we know that from v9—so we need to know how to interpret parables.
•People have defined parables in a number of ways, a popular definition being an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
•The word parable literally means “to cast alongside” and suggests that, in order to make a point, Jesus is putting a real-life instance alongside a theological principle.
•My favorite definition of a parable comes from my NT professor Daniel Streett at Criswell College, who said that a parable is a story that “catches you in a trap and punches you in the gut.”
•Translation: Parables often have a surprise ending that convicts you and hopefully leads you to re-evaluate your life in light of the kingdom principles put forth.
•This parable in Luke 18:9-14 comes right after another parable that Jesus told in 18:1-8, and they are connected. Both parables include praying, and both concern justice and faithfulness.
•So let’s look at the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector…
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: 10 “Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
•V9 does not begin the parable proper. If you have a red letter edition of the Bible, you notice that Jesus’s words don’t begin until v10. Here in v9 Luke is giving us some background information: the audience.
•We know two things about the people this parable was addressed to:
•First, they trusted in themselves that they were righteous. We would call them “self-righteous.” These people don’t believe they need God or anyone else. They feel they can do all the right things to be righteous in and of themselves.
•Second, they looked down on everyone else. They separated themselves from everyone else in society, because no one was as good as them.
•Besides this general characterization, we aren’t given anymore information about Jesus’s audience here. But, given the description, it sounds like He is talking to a group of Pharisees—people who separated themselves and prided themselves on doing all the right things.
•This is intriguing because, as we are about to see, a Pharisee is one of the two characters in Jesus’s parable.
•Even if Jesus’s isn’t addressing Pharisees, or exclusively Pharisees, His audience has self-righteous Pharisaical tendencies.
•The parable begins in v10 with Jesus setting the scene. So we have a Pharisee and a tax collector.
•These are two totally different types of people. They are at completely different ends of the social spectrum.
•The Pharisees loved the OT law and prided themselves on keeping it to a “T.” They even added to it, something known as the oral Torah. They made strict demands for themselves and others.
•Obviously it wasn’t a good thing that they added to God’s law, but they were generally good people going out of their way to do good deeds. Because of this they were well-respected in society.
•On the other hand we have tax collectors. You are probably aware that first century tax collectors didn’t have the best reputation.
•Now they made lots of money, but they were despised for how they did so.
•Tax collectors had to bid for their jobs. Someone would pay lots of money just to become a tax collector, because once they earned the title, they had the full force and authority of the Roman government behind them. They were authorized to collect whatever taxes, tariffs, or tolls Rome required, and then they could collect however much they wanted for themselves on top of that.
•They were extortionists, and they were social outcasts because of it.
•That’s what we know about Pharisees and tax collectors in general, but it is interesting when you look specifically at how they are presented in the gospel of Luke.
•We know that the Pharisees were a respected group of people in Jesus’s day, but in Luke’s gospel they have been presented as opposed to Jesus and His gospel message. They are constantly trying to trap Him in something He says or does.
•The tax collectors, on the other hand, though they are despised by society, have been presented as receptive of Jesus and His message. Even before Jesus came on the scene, they were being baptized by John the Baptist. You’re probably familiar with Zacchaeus, whose story is told in the next chapter, Luke 19. He was a tax collector who found Jesus and sought to pay back 4x what he had extorted from people.
•Luke 7:29 says the tax collectors “acknowledged God’s way of righteousness.” Luke 7:30 says the Pharisees “rejected the plan of God for themselves.”
•The way they are portrayed in Luke’s gospel is quite different than they are viewed in society, and that foreshadows what is to come.
•So the Pharisee and the tax collector are going up to the temple complex to pray. This was most likely either at 9 am or 3 pm, the two daily hours for public prayer.
•What Jesus is going to do in the rest of the parable is contrast the prayers of these two men…
11 The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
•Real quick, let me point out several things about the Pharisee’s prayer.
•First, he was standing, which was a normal posture of prayer in the temple.
•My Bible says he “took his stand,” but other translations say he “stood by himself” or prayed “with himself.”
•The idea here is that he was separating himself from everyone else. He was too worthy to stand by everyone else and pray.
•Secondly, notice all the “I’s” in his prayer.
•This prayer is not about what God has done for this man, but about what he has done for himself and what kind of person he has made himself.
•Also, thirdly, notice that in his prayer this Pharisee doesn’t ask God for anything. He doesn’t ask for mercy or forgiveness or anything.
•In his mind he doesn’t need anything from God. He is self-sufficient and self-righteous, because unlike the greedy, unrighteous, and adulterers, he keeps the law. Unlike the tax collector who is also praying in the temple, he keeps the law.
•He doesn’t need outside help, he can take care of himself. He explains further in v12…
•He fasts twice a week, probably Mondays and Thursdays, which was more than the law required. Also, he tithes on everything. He didn’t only tithe on what he earned, he even tithed on what he bought. He didn’t know if the produce he bought at the market had been tithed on, so he tithed on it just to be safe.
•He was a stickler for the law, doing everything he could to be righteous.
•For him, these things were boundary markers that distinguished him and set him apart from all others.
•But when we get down to v14, we’ll see how far that gets him…
13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’
•Notice how v13 starts with the word “But.” Some translations don’t begin it that way, but they should. There is a contrast here between the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee stands alone and thanks God he is not like all the rest, BUT the tax collector does something different.
•Like the Pharisee, the tax collector stands far off, but for a different reason. He isn’t separating himself because he is too worthy, but because he is unworthy.
•He won’t even raise his eyes to heaven. The normal posture for prayer was looking up to heaven, and there is other literature from this time period which suggests people wouldn’t raise their eyes to heaven because they were ashamed of their sin.
•Also, he continually strikes his chest, which is an act of shame and humility conveying a sense of unworthiness.
•Moreover, as he is doing these things, he is saying, “God, turn your wrath from me—a sinner.” The Pharisee is so thankful he is not a sinner, but the tax collector has no problem admitting he is one.
•Most of your translations probably have the man asking God to have mercy or to be merciful, but he doesn’t use the Greek word for mercy.
•He uses the word hilastheti, which means “propitiate me.” We don’t use the word propitiation often, even in theological circles, but it has to do with the removal of divine wrath.
•God is wrathful towards sin and sinners, but in His mercy, and ultimately because of Jesus’ s death, He will propitiate that wrath, he will remove that wrath.
•And that is what this tax collector is asking God to do in this prayer. He is confessing his sinfulness and asking God to forgive him.
14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
•In vv11-13 Jesus has compared and contrasted the prayers of the two men.
•Jesus turns everything on its head with this surprise ending. The tax collector, the one despised by society, is the one to be emulated—not the Pharisee.
•And this is the part that catches the original audience in a trap and punches them in the gut, because they are like the Pharisee—trusting in themselves that they are righteous.
•But look at what gets you justified. Not what you can do, but what Jesus can do for you.
•Justification is right standing before God. It’s righteousness, but not a self-righteousness. Instead, it is a God-granted righteousness based on Jesus’s work on the cross and your confession that you need him, your confession that His blood—not tithing, not fasting, not church attendance, or any other good deed, but His blood—is the only thing that can save you from your sin.
•In the end, Jesus actually makes it very simple.
•Notice the tense of these verbs: those who exalt themselves now will be humbled later. Those who humble themselves now will be exalted later. The “later” we are talking about is eternity.
•Everyone is going to experience both states, humility and exaltation, you just need to get the order right.
•Option #1 is to exalt yourself now (for a little while) and be humbled later (for eternity).
•Option #2 is to humble yourself now (for a little while) and be exalted later (for eternity).
•The choice seems pretty straight-forward to me…
•The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, calls you to rest—to rest assured in the sacrificial, atoning, propitiating work of Christ on the cross.
•It’s not about what you can do, it’s about what Christ has already done for you and for me.
•Does that mean that as Christians we get to sit around like lazy bums? No!
•There is still a place for good works in the life of a Christian. There is a place for tithing and fasting and church attendance.
•But you don’t do those things in order to be saved, but because you are saved. You don’t do them to gain God’s favor, but because God has favored you.