Recently I had to privilege to teach on a Wednesday night to our youth the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18. The parable's central theme is justification or righteousness. Jesus is speaking to a crowd consisting of his disciples, some Pharisees and presumably some commoners. But for this parable he is focusing in on "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt." Jesus teaches us through the parable that there are two options for salvation:
2. Justification (God's Justification)
Jesus uses a Pharisee to portray someone who is self-righteous. To the general eye the Pharisees were the religious giants. These were the teachers of the law. They would have been known as the "good guys." Every person hearing this parable would have been familiar with a Pharisee.
Jesus uses a tax collector as the other character in this parable. To the general tax collectors were some of the most hated people. These men would collect taxes for the Roman government plus charge extra in order to put extra money in their pockets. They were known for suppressing the Jews by placing extra taxes upon them. Jews turned tax collectors were ostracized by the Jewish community and lost their privileges to worship in the synagogue. The tax collector would have been known as the "bad guy" in the story.
Jesus has a purpose in using such contrasting characters. Those who were trusting in themselves that they were righteous would have been expecting Jesus to affirm the Pharisee for his good works. We read that the Pharisee and the tax collector both went up to the temple to pray. This would have been a normal occurrence for the Pharisee. We read that the Pharisee prayed first. He thanks God he is not like a certain group of low lives in community or even like the tax collector who is sitting in the same congregation as he is during his prayer. The Pharisee goes on to tell God reasons why he deserves to have God's favor: "I fast twice a week and give tithes on all I get." I imagine those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous were giving the affirming head nods.
Next up was the tax collector. He is seated near the back hoping not to be seen because of his reputation. His head is low not out of self pity but brokenness. He feels unworthy to lift his eyes toward heaven. He is beating his chest in repetition praying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." A short yet very powerful prayer for God to make atonement for him the sinner.
Jesus then drops the bomb: "I tell you, this [tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the [Pharisee}." I have to admit this is huge fist pump every time I read it. But since my study it has become a fist pump for a different reason. The great part about this passage is not that it simply would have exposed the self-righteousness of those listening but Jesus exposes our self-righteousness. My excitement in Jesus' words were over the fact that the Pharisee got put in his place. I was excited because the Pharisee was getting what he deserved. He was self-righteous and thought he was better then everyone else. My excitement was exposing my self-righteousness.
My fist pump has changed. Now I get excited over the fact that the tax collector was justified. Apart from God's saving grace this doesn't happen. His sins which were many have been forgiven. This takes me right back to the fact that God has been gracious with me in declaring me not guilty because of the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. His blood even forgives my self-righteousness. Now when I read this parable I am sadden that the Pharisee did not see his need for a Savior and plead for atonement to be made on his behalf. Rather he walked down from the temple still in his sin.
The Pharisee is a picture of someone who is trusting in themselves for salvation. They believe their good deeds will ultimately justify them before a holy God. But the tax collector represents sinners who have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. Are you trusting in your righteousness to be justified before holy God or are you clinging to Christ's righteousness?
Grace upon grace,