Luke 18:9-14

What is the Gospel?

Gospel means “good news.”

We, the Church, have “good news” for the world.  This good news is summed up in the verse from Scripture that says:
For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16, NLT)[i]

Jesus spoke these words when He was explaining why He had come.  As He explained, He continued with:
God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.  (John 3:17, NLT)

A central part of this message is the fact that the world needs saving.  The truth that accompanies the good news that believing saves one from perishing is that those who do not believe are condemned.

The good news is good partly because there is also some really bad news.  The bad news is found in places like Romans 3:23 that says:
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.  (NLT)

With the fact that the central message of the Church’s message starts out with us all being sinners, it is astonishing how much today’s message applies to me and to all of us.

Today’s passage starts out with the following statement:
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else:  (Luke 18:9, NLT)

Jesus is addressing a human problem.  We all tend to have this problem.  Jesus lays out the problem in two parts.  First, His story is addressed to those who had great confidence in their own righteousness.  The second part of the problem flows from the first and it is that they scorned everyone else.

The human tendency is to despise those that are different from ourselves. For example, Christians are divided along almost every conceivable line.  Some worship without instruments and tend to condemn those who use instruments.  Of course, many who believe we should worship without instruments are full of grace and do not condemn those of us who believe differently.  However, the human tendency is to condemn or judge those who are different.  We who use instruments are tempted to judge as legalistic those who do not use instruments, and those who do not use instruments are tempted to judge as unscriptural those of us who do use instruments.  This is why Jesus says:
1“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.  2For you will be treated as you treat others.  The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.  (Matthew 7:1-2, NLT)

This is also the problem addressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14 when he says:
1Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong.  2For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything.  But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables.  3Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t.  And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.  4Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants?  Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall.  And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval.  (Romans 14:1-4, NLT)

We all tend to justify ourselves, and will have varying degrees of confidence in our own righteousness.  To help us understand, Jesus uses a story. 

His story starts out with two men going to the Temple to pray.  Immediately, “two men” suggests a contrast, and what a contrast.  A Pharisee would have been the most righteous of the righteous.  They had more rules and kept more rules than anyone else.  Contrasted with this, the tax collector was the most despised class of sinner Jesus could have chosen for His comparison.

However, you will notice that both of these men were going to the temple to pray.  Thus, they were both going to meet with God.  At least, on the surface, it appeared that they were going to meet with God.  However, some go to the Temple, or the church, for appearances sake.  Although the Temple, or the church, is the house of God, for many it is just a place to go in order to be respectable and seen as good.  Everybody knows this, and so some use it as an excuse to avoid going to church.  Obviously, they must not want people to think they are good.  Or, by not going, they are professing that they could not go without pretending themselves.  (Avoiding church attendance because of hypocrites is itself hypocritical.)

This is where the contrast of the two men in Jesus’s story begins.  While they were both going to the place set aside for meeting with God, they both came with different heart attitudes.

As we look at the Pharisee, we will see him begin to pray.  It is said of the Pharisee that he “stood by himself to pray,” while it is said of the tax collector that he “stood at a distance.”  Since the story is a contrast, the understanding of their stance is best understood as a contrast.  The Pharisee is independent and confident, while the tax collector is more shameful or reticent.  Of course, since Jesus means to address those who were confident in their own righteousness, it only makes sense that the very stance of these individuals would point out the difference.

It is necessary for us to be independent.  Taking responsibility for one’s self and carrying those responsibilities is both necessary and good.  Confidence is also necessary for this.  However, Jesus is addressing the arrogance that considers one’s self to be better than others or scorns others.

The problem with the Pharisee is seen in his stance in that it is a self-righteous independence.  The house of God is a place for corporate worship.  The place to be by one’s self is in a private prayer closet.

The difference here with the tax collector who stood a distance away is that the tax collector shows a desire to approach but does not consider himself worthy to approach.

This difference in stance or attitude is very important to our understanding of our relationship with God.  None of us, not a single one, approaches God by any merit of our own.  In other words, not one of us is worthy to approach God.  Isaiah tells us that all our righteous works and goodness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), and the language used for filthy rags is extreme.  Let’s just say we might as well try to approach God with an offering of dirty diapers.

The Pharisee is self-righteously independent because he is better.  We have to be careful when we see somebody standing apart from the group because we can tend to think that they think they are better than everybody else.  Often, this is not the case, but for this Pharisee, it is the case that he thinks he is better.  In addition, he shows he thinks he is better by the content of his prayer.

Of course, his thanks to God is transparently just for show.  This is obvious because the entire prayer is one of comparison.  He is comparing himself to others.

We all compare ourselves to others, and some of it is unavoidable.  However, there is just one person that you will answer to God for and that is you.  I will answer to God for one person: me.  However, we must never forget that one of the main things we will answer to God for is how we treated other people.  We will not answer for how we compared to other people, but God’s second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

In the illustration, Jesus makes the arrogance of the Pharisee as obvious as possible.  Most of us would blush to hear such a prayer in public.  However, most of us have harbored such thoughts in our hearts.  And, this is what this illustration is meant to point out in us.

Compared to this, the tax collector’s prayer is more clearly addressed to God, deals only with what the tax collector is responsible for and addresses a real concern. 

All of us are faced with the dilemma of how do we as sinful individuals approach a holy and righteous God.  If all our righteousness is as filthy rags, how can we be right with God?

Before God, we are all much more like the tax collector, but in our hearts, we all have enough pride to be more like the Pharisee.  This is why Jesus gives this example.  He says:
 “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.”  (Luke 18:14, NLT)

Jesus concludes by clearly stating the spiritual principle He wishes to convey.  He says:
“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:14, NLT)

This is something taught consistently throughout Scripture. 

When the nation of Israel grew too proud of their temple and all their national accomplishments, God said:
“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  Could you build me a temple as good as that?  Could you build me such a resting place?  My hands have made both heaven and earth; they and everything in them are mine.  I, the LORD, have spoken!”  (Isaiah 66:1-2, NLT)

He then says one of the most remarkable things.  I will use a more literal translation for the last part of Isaiah 66:2.  The ESV translates it like this:
“But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”

Do you see this?  God has regard for the humble and contrite.  The word translated contrite means crippled or broken, like crippled or broken legs.  The tax collector is a picture of a crippled spirit.  Listen to what God says in Isaiah 57:15:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.  (ESV)[ii]

God dwells not just in heaven but also with the contrite and lowly.

The Scripture warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3), Philippians 2 lays out some clear teaching for us Christians.
3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Are we willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our neighbor?  Let’s remember the spiritual principle that Jesus taught:
“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:14, NLT)

[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation.  Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.  Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188.  All rights reserved.
[ii] Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.


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