Bible Study 2021
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
This is such a profound text theologically and spiritually. It has sweeping implications and yet it is at the same time so basic and simple. It is that parable that our Lord tells in Luke 18:9 - 14, and I want to take my time so that we understand it fully and we also understand its implications fully. And in order to build the background historically that makes this sensible to us and rich.
Luke 18:9-14, “Jesus 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, extortionists, unjust people, 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 me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
As is true of so many of our Lord's stories, this parable is counterintuitive; really outrageous, shameful by existing religious standards. Jesus here describes the unrighteous man as the one who was right with God and the righteous man as the one who was not. This is the reverse of everything the Jews believed, everything their religion at the time of our Lord taught them.
It is an idea that has no place in their theology. It is another reason to reject Jesus. To say that a self-confessed wicked man left the temple ground justified rather than a self-confessed righteous man is to completely overturn their religious thinking. But that's exactly what Jesus said. Why this parable at this time in Luke's gospel? Do you remember what his subject is?
Since Luke 17:20 - 37 and Luke 18:1-8, Jesus has been talking about the coming of the Lord Jesus and His kingdom which is a spiritual kingdom. Christ reigns and rules in the hearts of those who put their trust in Him. He will return one day to establish a literal, physical, material, earthly kingdom and after that 1,000-year kingdom will establish the new heavens and the new earth.
He reigns now over a spiritual kingdom. He will reign later over an earthly kingdom and then reign forever over an eternal kingdom. Those who are in the spiritual kingdom will be in the earthly kingdom and in the eternal kingdom. When He returns, He will come to judge the ungodly and to establish that earthly kingdom and then that eternal kingdom. So how does one get into this kingdom?
And that is the question our Lord answers in this simple story. How can a person be right with God? This is a question that haunted the people of the earliest biblical era. Back in the book of Job 9:1, Job answered in truth, "I know that this is so but how can a man be right with God?" How can we be righteous before God? How can we be justified before God? How can it happen?
It is not easy to answer because we know that no person, can on our own achieve this righteousness. And if they understood the Old Testament at all that this is a biblical truth. For the Scripture says the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked and all our righteousness is as filthy rags. Because we are sinful and God demands righteousness, how can we be justified?
And verse 14 says, "This man went down to his house justified." That is the most important issue that will ever face any human whoever walks on this planet and has a reasonable thought. Who is right with God and how? And the answer is really stunning and shocking. Remember the Jews knew God to be righteous. They knew God to be holy. Leviticus said, "Be ye holy for I am holy."
And they understood the question of Job: How can a man be right with God? And that question in Job comes up on a number of occasions. Job 25:4, "How can he be clean who is born of woman?" If you're human, you're sinful. Psalm 143:2, "In Thy sight, no man living is righteous." That is the issue that compels every human heart, and the answer determines every person's everlasting destiny.
How did they understand the word “justified”? It means to be just, that is guiltless. It means to be right before the judge, right before God. It is to accept someone as righteous, to acquit them, to clear their name so that one stands before God approved and accepted and that's exactly what our Lord said about this tax gatherer. God accepted him and rejected the Pharisee; stunning truth.
How can it happen? Well it says in Genesis 15:6, "Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness." They should have known what Isaiah 53 said, "My servant, the righteous one, Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, will justify the many.” How? “He will bear their iniquities," Isaiah 53:11. And the only way is if God imputed His righteousness to them by faith.
So the only way God could do that is if there was a suitable sacrifice to bear the just punishment His Law demanded in place of the sinner. They should have remembered Psalm 51, "Blessed is the one to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity." Every time there was a lamb sacrifice, this was a symbol of substitutionary death that the violation of the law required.
Either you die, or an innocent substitute dies in your place. All of those sacrifices pointed to the one final, perfect Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. It's all there in the Old Testament. They knew they needed to be right with God. But by the time you get to Jesus, they've missed it all together. They don't even understand that the Messiah must suffer and die.
They have lost the meaning of the whole sacrificial system. And the Jews have decided what the rest of the world has decided, that you get to God by being good. You please God, you satisfy God, you achieve reconciliation with God, you get into His kingdom, you gain heaven by being good, particularly being religiously good. They really need to understand this simple parable by Jesus.
No, it's not complicated, it's just this simple. Either you can make yourself right before God or you can't. You either do it actively or it is done for you, passively. That is the simple division of all religions on the planet. It is either a religion of human achievement or it is the truth, the religion of divine accomplishment. Every other religion in the world is a system of human achievement.
They say you get to God by being morally good, religiously good, ceremonially good, ritually and religiously good. And even people who aren't religious say that they're spiritual and they're really good. Whatever the name of the religion is, whether it's a world religion, or whether it's a personal, concocted religion, if the idea that you get to God by being good, it is a lie.
Listen to Jesus in Matthew 5:48, "Therefore you are to be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." Jesus is reiterating Leviticus, "Be holy for I am holy." The divine standard is absolute perfection. The Bible says if you break the law in one place, you've shattered all of it. Jesus said that it involves attitudes of the heart. So if you lust, you are an adulterer, and if you hate, you are a murderer.
If a fastidious Pharisee who gets elected to be the leader of the synagogue isn't in the kingdom, who can be saved? And Jesus responds by saying this, "With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." So what you have in this story is a division of the only two religions that exist: the religion of human achievement, and the religion of divine accomplishment.
The Pharisee is self-righteous and prideful. He seeks no mercy, seeks no grace, seeks no forgiveness, and wants no sympathy. He is thankful that he is not unrighteous. Self-exalted he goes away unjustified. The other is the tax collector; sinful, outcast, guilty, standing far away as he feels so unclean, seeking mercy, needing grace, distraught that he is not righteous. He's humble so he ends up being exalted.
Point number one: the comprehensive audience. The audience covers everybody outside those in the true faith. Verse 9, “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” We don't know whether or not Jesus said this when He was talking about the kingdom, but in Luke's inspired order of the text, this is the right discussion.
That's everybody who was thinking about going to heaven based on their works, and in particular the Pharisees and the scribes. Luke 16:14-15, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is esteemed among men is an abomination to God.”
The Pharisees had the greatest influence on the people because they had power in the local synagogues, which were basically ruled by their theology. So the people believed that trusting in yourself to become righteous was the way that you would eventually get to heaven. This is the self-confidence in one's ability to achieve righteousness by their own power and works.
How could they get that from the Old Testament? What did they do with the heart being deceitful above all things and desperately wicked? What did they do with that our works are nothing more than filthy rags? Conveniently setting it aside in sinful pride. These are the Pharisees and the people who followed the Pharisees. But also all the people who believe they are good enough to be acceptable to God.
In spite of all that, the first great sermon of the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this in Matthew 5:20, "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Nobody could comprehend that. Listen to a monk named Martin Luther who lived during the sixteenth century in Germany. He was the most scrupulous of monks.
He confessed his sins multiple hours per day. He sought forgiveness for the minutest of sins. He realized however, that with all this effort the standard of perfect righteousness, was absolutely unattainable because he knew his own heart. It made him angry. "Only,” he said, “when I read Romans, 'the just shall live by faith,' only then did I find relief." And he was helped by reading Augustine.
Well the Pharisees never discovered that. And so here we have these two men at extreme opposites. Verse 10-11, "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax gatherer. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank You that I'm not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax gatherer. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes of all that I get."
That happened twice a day, at 9 A.M. and at 3 P.M., which was laid out in Leviticus 1. They were to make an animal sacrifice, a blood sacrifice as a symbol of atonement. They were very fastidious people who made sure they showed up every day, particularly Pharisees who were in the proximity and could do that. The sacrifices would be offered on the altar.
They're going up there because an atonement is going to be made for sin. Some are going up there because they need the benefits of that atonement. Some are going up there to display how good they are themselves. The Pharisee, self-righteous, self-promoting, self-satisfied protectors of the religion of human achievement. And the tax collector who was deemed to be the oppressor.
They usually extorted money from their own people using intimidation, manipulation or criminal activity. So, they are shown going up together with the crowd, but they separate when they get there. First we see the Pharisee standing which was an acceptable normal posture for prayer. There were other postures, like kneeling or lying prostrate, hands down or up, eyes down or up.
Jesus talks in Matthew 6:5 about standing in a posture of prayer but not doing it to be seen by men. He says don't be like the hypocrites who stand in order to be seen by men. Well here's one of those hypocrites. Again you go back to the issue of the heart. The Pharisee wants to be wherever God is believed to be, to give the sinners around him a good look at a truly righteous man.
You see one of self-promoting pride, but you also see here his prayer. "He was praying to himself.” That can have two possible meanings. One, he was inaudibly praying. It's unlikely that that is the idea here. He was actually directing his prayer in a self-congratulatory fashion. And that is fairly well indicated by the fact that in two verses he refers to himself five times.
The Pharisee stood and was parading himself. He gives God no praise. He asks nothing from God, no mercy, no grace, no forgiveness and no help. But he does refer to God, because you're supposed to. "I thank you that I'm not like other people." Well what's there to thank God for? This is sheer hypocrisy. Thanking God for what you are on your own? I'm good enough.
God, I thank You that I'm good enough. I'm good enough to be the example of religious righteousness and virtue. I'm good enough to stand here so all the sinners can see what a really godly man looks like. He prayed in a self-congratulatory prayer probably audibly since typically Jewish people did pray audibly. The rabbis allow you to pray audibly but you are not supposed to yell.
And so everybody gets the message and so God can truly appreciate his achievement, he gets specific. "I'm not like other people, swindlers." It's another word for robbers, cheaters, adulterers, immoral sexual sinners. So he compares himself to the lowliest of the people he despises. And then he sees a good illustration of exactly the kind of person he is not, "Or even like this tax collector."
But his prayer is not complete in saying what he's not. He is also very religious. So he is moral and religious. Verse 12, "I fast twice a week." Now, the Old Testament only prescribed one fast, preparation for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16:31. There were times of sorrow, times of penitence, times of mourning when people fasted but that was something you could choose to do.
The Jews as external legalists like to invent rituals and ceremonies as all false religions do. And they get more complicated and more symbolic in direct proportion to the absence of truth. So they had developed a scheme of fasting on Monday and Thursday. Why then? Because those were the market days and the crowds were bigger, so you could fast, and make a spiritual impression.
Jesus condemned that in Matthew 6:16 when He said, "Don't fast like the hypocrites fast, in the public streets and in the corners, calling attention to yourself." It's talking exactly about this. People putting on external spiritual displays by ritualistic, ceremonial behavior, and by the clothing they wear, the garb, the way they dress as if this is the mark of real holiness.
Further he says, "I pay tithes of all that I get." The Old Testament laid down prescription for tithing, 10 percent of what you get goes to fund the national theocratic government, 10 percent goes to fund the national festivals and feasts on high holy days, and 10 percent every third year for the poor. So it was a 23 1/3 percent tax. Then there was a half-shekel temple tax and that was it.
Now let's look at this tax collector. First of all, his location, verse 13, "standing some distance away," Where the Pharisee is as close to the holy place he can get, he's as close to the location symbolically where the presence of God resides as he can get. The tax collector is way off on the outer edge. Why? Because he knows he doesn't deserve to be in the presence of God. He is a sinner. This is his humility.
But secondly, it's revealed also in his posture. Notice, he was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven. He is overwhelmed with guilt and shame and it shows up in his posture. He knows he is unworthy. He is a law breaker and he confesses it. He feels that weight of sin, that accompanying conviction and remorse. He experiences pain and fear of deserved judgment and punishment.
Thirdly, so does his behavior. It says he was beating his breast. A study of Jewish history, and the way Jews behaved themselves in modern times in the Middle East, will tell you that people prayed by putting their hands over their chest and putting their eyes down. This historically was a posture of humility. But this man begins to turn his hands into fists and pound his chest repeatedly.
This is a gesture that expresses the most extreme anguish. We only find it in Jewish history. We find references to it in ancient Jewish commentaries, but not in the Old Testament. There's only one other place in the New Testament where it happens. Luke 23:48, the crucifixion of Christ, “when they observed what had happened, they began to return, beating their breasts.”
It is interesting to study history and to find that this gesture, is rarely done by men. It is a female gesture. Women are permitted to show this kind of profound anguish, men are not. For men it is a gesture of extreme sorrow. It is little wonder that in all biblical literature we find this particular gesture mentioned only in the account of this parable and what happened at the cross.
This is a recognition of what our Lord taught, that it's out of the heart that all evil comes. This is a man who understands his own sinfulness. He knows what's in his heart. He knows that what Jeremiah said is true, that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. He is anguished over his guilt. He is broken over his shame, and his unworthiness. He is crushed and humbled.
He says, "God," and he is truly talking to God. "Be merciful to me, the sinner." Those are the words of a true penitent person. This is an confession of his extreme and supreme sinfulness and there's no comparing him with others. And that is a legitimate response because of all the sinners in the world he knows himself to be the worst. He knows his own heart better than anybody else.
Now the Pharisee and the tax collector had a lot in common. They both understood the Old Testament to be the revelation of God. They were committed to Judaism. They believed in the Creator-God of the Old Testament, the God who drowned the world in the days of Noah. They believed in the God of the Old Testament. They believed in the God who was merciful, righteous and holy.
Now, a Pharisee believed that he had committed sin in his life. He just believed that he had earned the right to be forgiven. He thought for sure that his sins were covered by his atoning sacrifices. For sure he was going to receive the full forgiveness of God. That's the way religious people think. It's just that they think they have done many more things right compared to the things they have done wrong.
So what is the difference then between these two? The difference is simply repentance. Faith is a given. And, this is the heart and soul of where gospel ministry has to go. You find a lot of people who believe in the Jesus of the New Testament, believe in the cross, and believe in the resurrection. The issue is whether or not they will repent of sin in a true and genuine act of penitence.
Now notice what he says. "Be merciful to me." He's saying, "God, please apply the atonement to me." He understood the wages of sin is death, the soul that sins it shall die. He understood that God would provide a sacrifice that would satisfy His justice, namely a substitute. He understood that the millions of animals that had been offered were symbolic of the fact that God could be appeased by a sacrifice.
He understood the theology of substitution, imputation and atonement. They knew that there would come one day a Son of David, a root out of Jesse, Isaiah 53, and He would bear our iniquities and He would die in our place. And by His sacrifice we have peace with God. Please God, make the atonement apply to me. May Your anger with me be over." That's the plea of a penitent sinner.
Now you might think that these two people weren't that far apart, theologically. There's just one fine difference and it's what divides everybody on the planet. It is that one of them thought he could please God on his own, by his own effort, and the other one knew he couldn't because his heart is desperately wicked and our best deeds are just filthy rags. That's what separates everybody.
Jesus said this in verse 14, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other." Justified, done with permanent results, permanently right with God, stunning, shattering their theological beliefs. That's why Jesus says, "I tell you." Because He knows He couldn't get this anywhere else in Judaism. That's not what the rabbis and the scribes tell you, that's not what you have heard.
This is a completed condition, a state of having been declared righteous and that's permanent. Just think, Jesus, God in human flesh, says that in one moment an extreme sinner can be pronounced instantly righteous. Righteous without any works, without any law-keeping, without any moral achievement or ritual. No penance, no works, just a permanent justification.
That's the gospel. All the sinner does is receive the gift, coming in penitent trust, pleading for atonement to be made to satisfy the wrath of God against his sin. He is the one who enters the spiritual eternal kingdom, rather than in hell. The Pharisee and all the people like him only intensifies the alienation. He went down even more wretched than when he went up.
So the listening crowd who heard Jesus say this and anybody who reads it is forced to reassess how a person enters the kingdom of God. This is an Old Testament conversion. But the only sacrifice that pleases God is the sacrifice of Christ, right? Therefore it wasn't the sacrifice of the animal that would be applied to this man's account, it would be the sacrifice of Christ pictured in the sacrifice of the animal.
The central axiom in verse 14 is a truism, a proverb, "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted." “Exalted” here is a synonym for salvation. So this refers to spiritual salvation, reconciliation, righteousness, justification, being in the kingdom. The path of self-exaltation ends up in eternal judgment. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. Let us pray.