A Parable for Some People

“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

Jesus’ target audience in this parable is self-righteous people who view others with contempt. Take a few moments and observe the attitudes and actions of the two men represented in Jesus’ parable. William Hendriksen wisely observed, “The parable presents two men, two prayers, two results” (NT Commentary, Luke, p. 818).

First, note how in the parable Jesus purposely presents two men who come from two completely different backgrounds in Jewish society.  Still, they both come to pray.  This seems plain and innocent enough, but Jewish studies of the times in which Jesus ministered reveal how the religious elite – particularly the Pharisees (possibly the Sadducees) – severely censored individuals,  categorizing them as publicans or tax-collectors and sinners (see the account surrounding Matthew Levi’s calling in Matthew 9:9-13). Conditions of penance were established by the religious elite, which an individual must meet before he could and would be accepted by God.   Thus, to a Pharisee, the very presence of the tax-collector in the Temple was probably offensive and insulting. And, the idea of a tax-gatherer finding favor with God, especially apart from a prescribed penance (i.e., doing some strict and severe work demonstrating penitence) was scandalous.

Jesus exposed the Pharisees’ self-styled religious approach to God for the sham it was: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” Jesus exclaimed in Matthew 23:13, “because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”  To the Pharisee, there were few men capable of attaining the righteous standard by which he had come to appraise himself.  Jesus purposely aims this parable at the heart of the Pharisee’s pride and self-righteous attitude.

Secondly, observe the approaches to prayer taken by the two men.  The Pharisee appears completely confident that God will listen to his prayer.  In fact, as the parable unfolds, you discern that the Pharisee isn’t actually concerned with God’s response at all.  The text says “he was praying to himself.” On the one hand, this may simply mean he was “by himself” or “off to himself” as he prayed. Of greater significant, especially when contrasted with how the tax-collector prays, is the Pharisee’s brash display of familiarity with God – as far as he was concerned his approach and access to God was a given.  The inappropriateness of his attitude also stands in contrast to the accounts of repentance found in the Old Testament.  For example, consider Isaiah 6:5 and the prophet’s exclamation at being in the presence of the Lord of Glory, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”  Observe Ezra’s prayer of repentance in Ezra 9:6, “…and I said, ‘O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens’.” Observe from David’s prayers in Psalms 38, 40, or 51 the attitude of genuine humility that accompanies one who is truly repentant before the God of all Creation, the God of Redemption:           

Psalm 38:4 – “For my iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they weigh too much for me.”

Psalm 40:11-12 – “You, O Lord, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me. For evils beyond number have surrounded me; my iniquities have    overtaken me, so that I am not able to see; they are more numerous than         the hairs of my head, and my heart has failed me.”

Psalm 51: 9 – “Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.”

The tax-collector’s prayer closely models these (and other) Old Testament examples: “unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’”

On another occasion, Jesus exposed the motives of the Pharisees:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; …“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men….“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men….Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Matthew6:1ff). In Matthew 23:5, He declared, “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men.”

In this parable, the Pharisee sees no distance between himself and God; the tax-collector, on the other hand, senses nothing but distance – distance created by his overwhelming iniquity in contrast to a God’s holiness and justice.

“Two men, two prayers, two results.” The tax-collector was the outcast of the society, the hated enemy of the Pharisee.  He was someone (or so reasoned the Pharisee) who deserved and could expect nothing from God for he had nothing to present to God to elicit His favor.  On the other hand, the Pharisee saw himself in a position of favor.  He was righteous, as evidenced both by what he did not do, and the religious deeds which he did do.  In his mind, God was obligated to treat him favorably.  In his mind, there was never a question as to whether his prayers would be answered – of course they would.Why wouldn’t they? D. A. Hagner captures the one truth which eluded the  Pharisee in his approach to God when he writes, “Merit before God on the basis of righteous works is a nonentity. The point is, that even if they had accomplished what they theoretically set out to do in successfully living according to a reformed oral tradition [and they couldn’t and didn’t], they had no claim upon God” (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia, Vol 4, p. 751).

Results of the two approaches? Jesus is clear: the tax-collector, presuming nothing, went away with everything (forgiveness and justification in God’s eyes);  the Pharisee, presuming everything, went away with nothing (no forgiveness, no justification). 

We should give serious thought to this parable, lest we think that the attitude which Jesus targets here is beyond us. “Pride goes before destruction,” wrote Solomon in Proverbs 16:18, “and a haughty spirit before stumbling.”    You might ask yourself, “Have I, or do I, ever approach God with the attitude that He owes me?”  Think about it carefully, when you go to God in prayer, is it with the sense that He owes you?  In your mind – even if you don’t express it verbally – do you come to God on the basis of what you don’t do (i.e., sins which you avoid); or do you focus on those areas in which you know you fall far short of glorifying Him, and humbly approach His throne of grace to obtain mercy and grace to help (Rom 3:23; Heb 4:16)? 

Self-examination is probably one of the most difficult tasks we face; yet it is possible with the aid of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 11:31-32; 2 Cor 13:5). One means of measuring the way you position yourself before God is to examine your attitude and reaction toward God when answers to prayer don’t come as quickly or perhaps in the way you were expecting. When this happens, do you see God as having failed to account for your merits?  Do you become frustrated, even irritated with His responses to you? Another measure of your attitude is found in how you view others.  Do their sins appear hideous and loathsome in your eyes, while your sins seem to seldom surface at all in prayer? Do you find yourself contemptuously looking at others, while resting comfortably in a self-determined measure of goodness?  Put another way, do others faults and sins dominate your prayers in place of your own? When you begin in prayer, do you mention your sins first or are you given to highlighting the sins of others?

“Two men, two prayers, two results.” Which of the two represents you?

“He told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.”

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