Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
October 28, 2018
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
— Luke 18:9-14, ESV
Jesus presents us with a parable that puts in our minds two people we can see and two prayers we can hear. Many sermons have been preached about the great differences between the two main characters. My contention, however, is that they were basically the same, except for one thing, an invisible and irresistible gift that changes everything.
Climbing up to the temple mount, these two people look drastically different. But, they are the same people with the same problem that plagues every member of the human race. They were clothed with everything they needed except for the one thing we all need the most.
The Pharisee would be well-dressed in a conservative style, probably in some garments the equivalent of a black business suit. His shoes would be shiny, there’d be money in his pockets, and he would have the admiration of the crowd. In a world where religion pervaded every area of life, the Pharisees were the elites and the envy of Jews everywhere.
The tax collector would appear quite differently, in person and in the public eye. He would be dressed well, too, only in a disco style from a distant decade. He’d have cash, too, taken from overcharged bills to his overtaxed countrymen. He would not be beloved by his fellow Jews, for he had sold his soul, or at least rented it, to the enemy, the oppressors of Israel, the Roman Empire.
Ironically, the affections felt for these to people are as opposite as their appearance. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were cheered while the tax collectors were jeered. In our day, we boo the Pharisees and root for the underdog publican. Perhaps thanking God we are not like the Pharisee is to miss the point of the parable.
My point here is the two men look different, and we feel differently about them, but they are exactly the same before God as they enter the temple. God sees their sin, although only one admits he has it. God does not see true righteousness, although one thinks he already has it. The Pharisee is self-righteous and the tax collector is unrighteous, but they are the same, they both lack the righteousness God requires. So the two, in the same fashion, stand condemned before God as they kneel in the temple to pray.
Both prayers were launched from the temple. Both prayers were honest. They reflected how each man felt about himself and God. I’m sure the Pharisee wasn’t like other men, engaged in strenuous religious activity, and separated himself from “this tax collector.” The tax collector was indeed a “sinner,” so both men can be heard telling the truth in the temple. But religious proximity and verbal integrity is where the similarity ends.
Examine closely the Pharisee’s prayer, which reveals his sin-sick, self-righteous soul. It is a big-headed monster with four I’s. Or, maybe just two eyes, as the late, great Haddon Robinson said, “He had his good eye on himself, his bad eye on the tax collector, and no eye left for God.” The parable obviously summarizes the Pharisee’s prayer, because pharisaical prayers were well-known for being long and loud.
The Pharisee’s prayer was anti-Christ, for these religious rulers had already rejected the Preacher of this parable. This prayer was anti-gospel, because it was all about what the Pharisee had done for God, not what God had done for the Pharisee. This prayer was anti-Reformation, because it rejected justification by faith and offered works as a means of obtaining the righteousness of God.
The tax collector’s prayer begins the same way as the Pharisee’s, addressed to “God.” It too is summarized in the parable, because in full length many specific sins would have spilled out. It would not have been as long as the Pharisee’s, as it quickly cuts to the chase.
But before this distinctive sinner’s prayer was uttered, something was going on and something was giving in this tax collector’s mind, heart, and will. Heretofore the sight of a tax collector would have made a Pharisee sick. But now, the sound of that Pharisee’s prayer made the tax collector sick. He was sick of self-righteousness, and knew that was not the path to God. He was sick of his own unrighteousness, after years of living in rebellion against God and ruining other people’s lives with his greed, lust, and pride.
Something made the tax collector “beat his breast” as he began to pray, signifying a mournful remorse for his sinful condition, his earned reputation, and his inability to do anything about it. Then something happened that you cannot see before words were uttered that you could hear. One thing led to the other and everything in this sinner’s world, and this saint’s world to come, was changed.
The Difference Between the Two
Jesus makes plain the difference between the two. One was hardened by his sin and the other was humbled. One offered his own righteousness while the other begged God for His. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (ref. vs. 14). They came to the temple that day exactly the same, lost, undone, lacking the righteousness of God. They left in two different directions, one downward and one Godward.
What makes the difference? You cannot tell by looking at the Pharisee. The tax collector holds all the clues. Focus on this sinner, this one who became justified. What exactly happened to erase his past, change his present, and guarantee his future?
There was a drawing near to God, but where does such a drawing come from, from man or from God? There was deep conviction of sin, but where does such conviction come from, from man or from God? There was a sincere calling upon the name of the Lord, but where does effectually calling come from, from man or from God? There was faith expressed, but where does faith come from, from man or from God? There was mercy requested and received, but where does mercy come from, from man or from God?
What happened to the tax collector? If we could ask him, I can hear him singing the answer, in a tone lovelier than the great Larnelle Harris:
Were it not for grace, I can tell you where I’d be,
Wandering down some pointless road to nowhere,
With my salvation up to me
I know how that would go, The battles I would face,
Forever running but losing the race,
Were it not for grace.
It is the grace of God the Father that draws a person to God (ref. John 6:44). It is the grace of God the Spirit that convicts a person of sin (ref. John 16:8). It is the grace of God the Son that pays the price for a person’s sin and gives them the righteousness of God (ref. 2 Corinthians 5:21). It is grace that begets faith (ref. Ephesians 2:8). It is the undeserved gift of grace that bestows upon us the mercy that withholds our punishment and puts in on Christ.
Two spiritually dead men walked into the temple. Only one left alive. The first exited as he entered, rich, popular, and religious. The second walked out in the opposite direction, poor in spirit, willing to stand alone for Christ, declared righteous by God.
Grace changes the way God looks at you. Grace changes the way you look at God. Grace changes the way you look at yourself and others. Grace changes your past, present, and future. Grace changes everything.
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