May 16 2013
Did you ever sneak into a church hoping to go unnoticed? You sit at the back closest to the door while those who are regulars march confidently to the front. This is how the tax-collector in Jesus’ parable may have felt when he crept into the temple area to confess he was a sinner. I am referring to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector that went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee was a regular; he was probably at the temple every day. As he walked through the gates he would have been greeted as ‘Rabbi’ and would have nodded to his acknowledgers before heading to his usual spot at the front near the Holy Place. This was as close as a Rabbi or any Jew could get to the place of God’s presence if they weren’t a priest, and he would have stood there facing the Holy Place while praying with his hands out stretched.
The tax-collector was an outcast in his community. Tax-collectors were considered traitors because they collected taxes from the Jews on behalf of Rome. But they were also considered conmen because they collected more than they should and kept the excess for themselves. So it would have appeared hypocritical for him to be seen praying at the temple outside of the compulsory annual festivals, and so he probably snuck inside the courtyard gate and stood at the back hoping no one would notice.
Jesus chose two opposite stereotypes for his parable. Choosing a Pharisee and a tax-collector was like choosing a Bishop and a barman, and Jesus had every intention of carrying the theme to its eye opening conclusion.
♦ When the Pharisee prayed he thanked God for his own obedience. Have you ever done that? It may seem strange but it makes more sense when we understand a Pharisee’s concept of righteousness. The Pharisee believed that if he kept Moses’ Law and the traditions of the elders he was completely righteous. This is righteousness based on observing a list of things you should and shouldn’t do; what we refer to as legalistic righteousness. Mainstream Islam has a similar concept of righteousness. But Jesus taught something different. He said God was more interested our hearts than a list. We may feel we have kept the law which says ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but if we have looked at a woman lustfully we have committed adultery with her in our hearts (Mt 5:28). Real righteousness goes beyond a list; it’s all about having a clean heart.
We Evangelicals have our own Pharisaic lists. We measure people by whether they smoke, drink, go to bars, or wear tattoos, and don’t realize that many drinkers and smokers love Jesus more than we do. We have a legalistic list, but God sees the heart.
One of the big problems with having a list is that it can produce a lot of pride in those who manage to keep it, and there is no sin in scripture that angers God more than self-righteous pride. Jesus’ scathing rebukes to the Pharisees are a testimony to this (Mt 23). You see, God is not impressed by our righteousness. Our righteousness can never get close to the requirements of heaven. Isaiah 64:6 says “Our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” In Bible times white robes were a symbol of purity. Angels appeared in white and so did the saints in the book of Revelations. So ‘filthy rags’ paints an opposite picture of impurity. Isaiah is saying that our righteous acts are always full of impurity; they are nothing to be proud of.
Now the Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t like the tax-collector that he had seen by the entrance. He thought the tax-collector’s righteousness was like filthy rags and did not realize that his own was in a similar state. Now if we cannot see that we are dirty then we are blind. The tax-collector actually had more spiritual perception than the Pharisee because he saw his own sin. Pride blinds us from seeing our sin, but humility opens our eyes.
So let’s talk some more about the tax-collector. He stood at the back distraught. He saw his sin and was disgusted with it. I imagine him with tears in his eyes. Jesus said he did not look up, but beat his breast in anguish and prayed just one sentence: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Now what kind of prayer is this? It’s a sinner’s prayer. He was asking God to save him. How different he was to the Pharisee. He saw the massive gap between himself and God, and he confessed to being bad and unable to do anything about it. This is the kind of person God can help; he is ready to receive God’s grace. And he did.
Jesus gave his verdict; he said the tax-collector left the temple justified, and the Pharisee did not. That means the tax-collector was declared righteous and the Pharisee was declared a sinner. The barman left the church clean and the Bishop left dirty. Ouch!
There is probably a bit of Pharisee and tax-collector in all of us. When we first gave our lives to Christ we were like the tax-collector. We came as we were; aware that we were worldly, dirty, and in need of God’s mercy. But after a few years of being a believer we turn into the Pharisee who thinks he gains God’s favour by the things he does. It is then that we climb on the rollercoaster of pride and guilt. One moment we think we are better than others; and the next we think God has rejected us. It is here that we need to remind ourselves that God’s grace (unmerited favour) is the foundation for our relationship with him. Relationship with God cannot be built on anything else; we will never be good enough for God. Secondly, God’s grace doesn’t just pardon, it also empowers. We are saved by grace, but we also work out our salvation by grace. God has given us the Holy Spirit to be able to live a righteous life, and the Spirit is like a river that flows continually but is received by grace.
Are you struggling with sin? Are you tired of the battle? Then you are in a good position to receive the river of grace. But like the tax-collector you need to focus on the source of your salvation knowing that without his power there’s nothing you can do about your condition. Try switching your focus from how good or bad you are to how amazing God is. And then ask him to live in you, to breathe in you, to take over.
Recently when I was disappointed with myself and tired of the struggle, God gave me this song to sing. It became for me a revelation of God’s empowering grace. If the tax-collector knew it, I am sure he would have sung it. Try singing it prayerfully to God: It’s called Eagles Wings.
Other Illustrations used: When thanking is boasting (Facebook) | What if your despised ‘tax-collector’ came to church? | Eagles Wings: ‘Come live in me, all my life, take over’
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