Luke 18:9-14, “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; and 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, a 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.”
Now to the tax collector. In Jesus’ day, the average tax collector was nothing less than an extortionist, who robbed people of their livelihood. They not only were traitors to their own people by being employed by the Jewish enemy – Rome – these people would take Jewish money and give it to Rome! And to make matters worse, most tax collectors were filthy rich because they took more money than they needed from people, and kept it for themselves. These people today would probably be included with the likes of those who sell drugs to children, pimps and swingers, and those leading, using, and trading in the sex trafficking industry. These are not good people, and everyone knew it. It wasn’t a secret that these tax collectors were frauds! And for one of them to walk into the temple like this guy did not only never happened, it would simply be astonishing!
This guy’s prayer was different. He came in, couldn’t even lift his head to heaven or stand up, but bowed down, probably crouched in the corner saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knew who he was, he knew he was fraud, and that he had stolen more than he could count from innocent people. He knew that he was a wretched person, more wicked than he could ever imagine. He knew that he had sold out to Rome and was bankrupt morally. What’s crazy about this, is that after he prays, he received mercy and was made right with God. You see verse 13-14? “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was unwilling to even lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other…” He was justified? He was saved? Yes.
There are two phrases here that I want to pause on in this passage:
a) Justified: the text clearly says that the tax collector went home “justified.” What does that word mean? Justified in the Bible is used as a legal term, so when one is said to be justified it means that he or she is declared righteous is God’s sight. This is what happened to the tax collector, he came to God at the end of himself and was sent home justified. 2 Cor. 5:21 speaks about this when it says, “God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Jesus.” This is what people throughout history have called “the great exchange.” When you come to Jesus by faith, admitting your own sin and shame, and trusting in Him for salvation you will experience God taking away your condemnation, guilt, and shame, and will see God giving you the righteousness of Jesus. It’s as if all our evil deeds were written in a book, and upon salvation, we see God erase all our evil deeds in that book and fill our book with all of Jesus’ perfect deeds. God now counts Jesus’ good works – Jesus’ righteousness – as our own.
So here me: we are saved by works, but it’s not our works that save us. It’s Jesus’ works that save us.
b) “…rather than the other.” This phrase ought to scare the hell out of you. You see, to Jesus’ audience, no one was better than a Pharisee and no one was worse than a tax collector, this would have simply been astonishing. Jesus is saying that the one who everyone thought was close to God was not, and the one who no one had a hope in the world was. This again shows that the way of the kingdom of God is the opposite of the way of the world! You see how parable ends? 18:14 says, “…for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” True greatness is not self-elevation at others expense, it’s coming to the end of ourselves and trusting in the works of someone else! The one who looked religious in all aspects of his life was not right with God, rather the one who was wicked, and owned up to it crying “God be merciful to me a sinner (!) was saved!” I said that this phrase should scare you because after reading this parable we Christians have to ask ourselves one question: which person do I resemble the most?
I think 99% of us would have to say the Pharisee. You see, you and I are too good at playing the part, putting the mask on, and acting like we got it all together, when deep down we know that we are just as bankrupt as that tax collector. We all think that we are better than certain people, so the question is not do you think of others as under you, it’s who do you think of as under you?
Don’t come under the judgment of God, take care that you come to God like the Publican, the tax collector, lest in coming like the Pharisee, you find judgment from God rather than salvation.